GREENSBURG – Life recently got a little easier for one local woman.

Greensburg's Cherree Ridzon was born with a genetic condition known as aniridia, which seriously limits her vision. She recently received the assistance of a guide dog named Finley.

The term aniridia is Greek for "without iris." It is a congenital, bilateral (both eyes) condition occurring in roughly 1 out of every 100,000 people. Aniridia is characterized by the complete or partial absence of the iris. The iris is the colored part of the eye surrounding the pupil. The iris contains muscles that allow the pupil to become larger (open up or dilate) and smaller (close up or constrict). The iris regulates the amount of light that enters the eye by adjusting the size of the pupil opening.

While aniridia is named for under-development, or the complete formative absence of an iris, the disorder can also be accompanied by glaucoma, lens abnormalities, light hypersensitivity, or nystagmus, an uncontrolled irregular "shaking" of the eyes.

Because of extremely painful glaucoma, Ridzon had her left eye completely removed, and the possibility exists for vision in her right eye to deteriorate further.

A Lions Club member at one time herself, and friends with Lions Club members Kaywin and Ann Lindsay, Ridzon applied in early 2019 to "Leader Dogs for the Blind." A major charitable initiative of Lions Club International is the protection of sight in children and helping the visually impaired lead more satisfying lives and enjoy their independence despite their visual impairments.

Ridzon said after she submitted the application to Leader Dogs she expected a long wait, but about a month later she got a phone call indicating those involved with the program thought she was a good candidate for a guide dog, and later a call letting her know there was a dog available to meet her.

Ridzon does not work outside her home.

"There are many places that I won't go because I'm afraid of the setting or unsure of how to navigate, so I don't work," she said.

Having a guide dog represents an opportunity for her to find employment and a social life outside of her home.

Fast forward to earlier this month, and Cherree has accepted Finley into her life. Leader Dogs for the Blind representative John Detloff is spending 10 days with Cheree, training her how to maneuver in the world of Greensburg with Finley's help.

"I'm learning things she can do, things I never knew a leader dog could do. I'm amazed, and we're building trust and confidence in each other," Ridzon said.

Finley, a Labrador-mix, is 18 months old.

"We have puppy raisers that keep the dogs for about a year, teaching them obedience and socialization and exposing them to new environments. These dogs are trained from birth for what they are doing. Going out in the world is their job, it's an adventure for them," said Detloff. "What you can do with them is not what you would do with a regular dog. Sure, they get free time during the day to play and recreate, but they are working dogs, and for their whole lives they have been trained for this role."

Detloff said that his company, Leader Dogs for the Blind, having partnered with the Lions Club for many years, sends him to train new "teams."

"I have 10 days here in Greensburg to work with the new Cherree/Finley team. I'm here to teach Cherree how to get the best use out of Finley, how to give commands, how to react when the dog stops at a street corner, for example," Detloff said. "We bring clients into our Rochester, Minnesota, facility to teach them, but we also go to the client and help them to learn their own surroundings."

At home

"I'm still in training, so I'm don't know all the rules yet, but at night Finley sleeps in the room with me, next to my bed on her tie-down, a chain I keep near my bed. She sleeps on a blanket I gave her. She wakes up when my clock goes off. I hit the snooze button a few times, so it was funny the first few times, she stood there and looked at me when I went back to sleep," Ridzon explained, laughing. "We get up together at about 6 a.m."

After the two go outside so the canine can use the bathroom, the two go about starting a new day together.

Elsewhere

"So we did basic stuff for five miles yesterday," Detloff said. "We were out to Walmart. Next time you're at Walmart, think about getting through there not being able to see. How would you even do that? It's not set up for vision impaired people at all. And downtown here, there are some real problems. There are lots of push-button stuff, but they need talking lights. There are a lot of places that the truncated domes are set-up all askew. Dogs are trained to come up to square corners and sit. Well, all the ramps leading onto sidewalks are rounded."

Detloff also reminds area residents that a blind person with a guide dogs trumps someone in a vehicle.

"When you see a team like this, you are law-bound to stop and give them the right of way," he said. "Yesterday, we had a few close calls because I don't think any of the drivers we encountered knew that."

Failure to yield the right of way to a pedestrian, including a nearly blind pedestrian with a guide dog, is illegal.

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Contact Bill Rethlake at 812-663-3111 ext. 217011 or email bill.rethlake@greensburgdailynews.com.