Anyone who knows Marlinton resident Roger Trusler knows he’s a busy man. During his grant writing days, he helped the county in countless ways, one of his efforts being the Community Wellness Center in Marlinton. He is also a very active member of Marlinton Rotary, Pocahontas County Parks and Recreation Board and Pocahontas County Association of Retired School Employees as well as several committees.
There was a time when Trusler wouldn’t let anything hold him back. But, he couldn’t deny that his macular degeneration – causing his vision to deteriorate – would one day sideline him.
Not one to give up on his lifestyle – or his plans for the future – Trusler decided a while back that it was time to start the process to get a leader dog.
Trusler reached out to friends who are members of the Durbin and Marlinton Lions clubs, and he received information on the Leader Dogs for the Blind, a program that receives assistance from Lions Club International.
The application process began in February, which included a video of Trusler’s everyday life, as well as medical exams.
By July, Trusler was on his way to the Leader Dog School in Rochester Mills, Michigan, where he went through his first round of training.
In September, he met his golden retriever, Koda.
“I left on July 14 – my brother’s birthday – to attend orientation and mobility training,” Trusler said. “Then sometime in September, they called me about going to Leader Dog training. I left on my birthday [to go to Michigan], and Koda was born on my dad’s birthday.”
With all the steps lining up with family birthdays, Trusler knew it was meant to be.
He spent three weeks at the training center, going through rigorous training and working around obstacles with and without Koda before they returned to the new normal life in Pocahontas County.
“The first two days, we just worked with the trainers,” Trusler said. “There were twenty-five lessons. Then, they introduced me to Koda. A trainer that I worked with brought him in, and we didn’t have any problems with him. We bonded well. He doesn’t get too excited, so I referred to us as the low-stress team.”
Trusler was one of 17 individuals to go through the recent training – seven were from all across the U.S. and Canada, and 10 were from Spain.
They worked together and individually as they maneuvered their way through the city of Rochester, as well as around obstacles at the training center.
“We worked downtown Rochester,” Trusler said. “They were putting up the Christmas decorations and had equipment all around – people in hard hats – and we maneuvered right through it. He walked me around obstacles. We walked in areas without sidewalks.
“We did night travel and, of course, we walked a lot faster than I would have walked by myself because he was my eyes,” he continued. “Leader Dog set up some situations – obstacle courses that we had to walk through. If there’s a complete barrier, Koda takes you up to the barrier and stops, and then you reach out and touch the barrier. Then, you can either give a command to ‘right’ or ‘left’ or ask him to find a way.”
Along with leading Trusler safely from place to place, Koda is also trained to sense danger and protect Trusler as much as he can.
“We went to Detroit and rode on a train,” Trusler recalled. “One of the things that amazed me – when we went out on the platform, I asked him to ‘find a curb’ and he went right out to the edge and then he cut in front of me. That happened here after a parks and recreation board meeting the other night. Out here at the intersection, there was an automobile at three of the four stop signs and he just stepped right in front of me.”
Even before he began working with Trusler, Koda spent most of his life in training. His first six months were spent in a Michigan prison in a program called Puppy Raise. Then, he went through an evaluation process before moving on to the next stage of training as a Leader Dog.
Trusler explained that Koda’s class began with 240 puppies in the developmental center. Of those, 96 moved on to be Leader Dogs. The others became different types of service dogs – working at police departments, fire departments, hospitals and in the family court system.
Of course, not all the training is work, work, work. The 25 lessons include grooming, feeding and playing.
“He gets groomed every day,” Trusler said. “Brushing his teeth – that’s a challenge, but it’s not that bad. It’s getting better. The first time I tried, it was really hard.”
As for play, Trusler has a large yard for Koda to explore and a few toys for the pup to play with, but for the most part, he’s a relaxed dog who likes to lie on the floor and wait for his master’s call.
Even when at rest, Koda is always on alert. Anytime Trusler is telling a story to friends and he says ‘Koda,’ the dog will twitch and prepare to get in position for work, until he realizes he is not needed just yet.
When Koda is at work, he wears a harness that states, ‘Do Not Pet Me, I Am Working.’ Trusler said it is okay to address Koda, but to not touch him while he is in work mode. But, once that harness comes off, the pup is ready to cuddle with anyone in sight.
It was a long process to get to this point, but Trusler said he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“If I had done this last year, I wouldn’t have gotten Koda,” he said. “It was perfect timing. With macular degeneration, it’s gradual. Sunlight really bothers me, and I quit driving because I figured there’s no need to take a risk. It wasn’t hard for me to make this decision. And so, I stay active, go places. If I go to a meeting at night, it’s sometimes hard to walk back in the dark, even if you have a flashlight.
“Now, I’ve got Koda, so it’s not as bad.”