For the past 19 years, Gina Braxton and her leader dogs have navigated the world as one. They grocery shop, go to the post office, take walks and discover life together, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“I can get around with a cane, but it’s easier to get around with a guide dog,” Braxton said. “My dog gives me the freedom to pursue my daily life.
“Miggy and I go to Price Chopper and I tell him to take me to customer service, so I can get shopper assistance. If I tell him to cross the street and he sees it’s not safe, we don’t cross the street.”
In 2000, Braxton, who has been visually impaired since birth, was paired with her first leader, dog, Mikayla, through the Leader Dogs for the Blind program located in Rochester Hills, Mich.
Founded in 1939 by Lions International, the program trains and provides leader dogs for the visually impaired at no cost. The organization is 100 percent philanthropically funded, with a portion of that funding coming directly from Lee’s Summit Lions Club donations.
“Leader dogs help make the visually impaired mobile, so they can be independent,” said Bob Hayter, Lee’s Summit Lions Club member. “They can do daily activities they might not be able to do without the dog. These dogs help with necessities, but they’re also companions.
“I’ve been a member of the Lions for 55 years and this program is so important.”
From the time Gina and her boyfriend Allen Travis met in 2003, Travis has seen firsthand that vital relationship between Gina and her leader dogs.
“It’s indescribable the impact those dogs have on Gina’s life on a daily basis,” Travis said. “You’d be amazed what those dogs do.
“Once, I saw Gina step off a curb and into a hole in the street. That dog dove under her and brought her gently to the ground, so she wouldn’t hurt herself. If she’s crying, the dog will nudge and love on her.”
Along with the service, protection and companionship leader dogs provide also come some painful goodbyes. Because of the brevity of these dogs’ lives, which can range from 8 to 11 years, goodbyes are often inevitable.
In 2009, Mikayla, Braxton’s first dog, was retired from service as a result of cataracts. Though Mikayla still lived with her, Braxton returned to the Leader Dog program to train with her second dog, a yellow lab named Ellie. After she came home with Ellie, the two dogs formed a close bond during the next several months. Then in 2010, Mikayla developed severe hip dysplasia and had to be put down.
The heartache from that loss extended to every member of the family, including Ellie.
“It was hard to retire Mikayla and start with a new dog, because Mikayla was my first dog,” Braxton said. “When I put her down, Ellie helped to keep me going, but she and I grieved for Mikayla. Ellie cried every day for weeks.”
Travis also suffered from the loss of Mikayla.
“It was like losing a child to lose that dog. It was so painful when we had to take her in to put her down. I loved that dog and it’s still emotional for me today,” he said.
Ellie, who is now 11, retired in early 2017, also because of cataracts. That year, Braxton returned to the Leader Dog School for her third dog, a black lab named Miggy who has now been her companion for nearly two years.
“It was easier to retire Ellie,” Braxton said. “She let me know she was ready and she loves retirement.”
Braxton says that Ellie and Miggy, who is named after baseball great, Miguel Cabrera, are inseparable.
“Miggy and Ellie play all of the time and sleep by each other and I love her so much. It will be hard for all of us, when it’s time to say goodbye.”
Though she knows that unavoidable goodbye will come, Braxton focuses on living life with her dogs, one joyful day at a time.
According to Braxton, Miggy loves his job, and is always ready and willing to work. On a regular basis, he finds his leash and harness, then comes and stands in front of Braxton ready for the next adventure.
In addition to life with Travis and her dogs in Blue Springs, Braxton joined the Blue Springs Lions Club a year ago and is committed to her work with the organization.
“I wanted to be part of the program that made it possible for me to have these dogs,” she said. “Otherwise, it would have been prohibitive and impossible.”
The cost to train a leader dog runs approximately $35,000.
Puppies spend their first year training with the organization’s “puppy rangers.”
Of those dogs, the ones who seem most suited and qualified for the leader role are then trained for four to six weeks at Leader Dogs’ headquarters in Michigan.
Following that period, the dogs are paired with visually impaired partners and the new companions attend an intensive three-week training session together, also in Michigan.