New program at Waco VA pairs veterans with guide dogs

Posted at 6:58 PM, Sep 24, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-24 21:09:58-04

There's a new program at the Blind Rehabilitation Center at the Waco VA that's pairing veterans with guide dogs.

The 12-day inpatient CATs and Dogs program is designed to assist veterans who are blind or visually impaired with guide dog training while they work on their Computer Access Training (CAT) classes.

The program was made possible through a partnership with Guide Dog Foundation out of New Jersey. This partnership makes them the third VA in the country to offer this kind of program.

Stephen Lavallee is a field instructor with the Guide Dog Foundation. He's been in Waco for more than a week working with the first round of veterans in the program.

"It's a very fulfilling job," Lavallee said. "I myself am a veteran and that's why I wanted to be part of this program."

One veteran came all the way from California for this opportunity. Another man, an Army veteran, traveled from San Antonio to pick up his dog, Shamus. 

Nearly 10 years ago, Sgt. First Class Tyson Persona was in Afghanistan when he was struck by IEDs that damaged his eyesight. 

"When your lights are being turned out and you're severely vision impaired, you don't really feel normal," Persona said. "I'm considered what's legally blind. I can make out faces and objects at a close distance but my peripheral vision is about 5 degrees." 

Persona has made a lot of progress over the years thanks to the support of his family. He said having an extra set of legs will help him through his next chapter. He's a father with three young children and he also plans on going back to school.

"I'm excited for him to help me get around," Persona said. "Navigate campus, the mall, catch an Uber. You have confidence with a guide dog."

Persona has spent several days working with Shamus and Lavallee for a few hours at a time. They go over commands and other ways he can control the dog. He's also traveled around the city to test what he's learned in a real-world setting.

"I think this is a perfect match," Lavallee said "Tyson is a very confident individual. Shamus is a large, energetic dog that has a lot of drive to do the work."

While Shamus is trained to keep Persona out of harm's way, he'll also serve as his confidant.

"I could just tell that it was going to be a beautiful bond," Persona said. "Friends are, I believe, the family that we get to choose. I believe that he knows that not only is he a friend, but he is family."    

The next class at the Waco VA will be in February. Dogs are provided at no cost to the veteran. The Guide Dog Foundation uses labs, retrievers or a mix of the two. 

If you would like to participate in the program you can call Blind Rehabilitation Services at 254-297-3649 for more information.

You can also submit an application for a guide from the Guide Dog Foundation here.

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