By LINDA BOUVET, LSSU Sports Information Director
SAULT STE. MARIE – It’s important for the nearly 200 students filling Lake Superior State’s 15 varsity team rosters to see a familiar face in the crowd when they compete. Most LSSU athletes are several hours from home.
“Laker,” a Leader Dogs for the Blind trainee under Gary Klop’s care, is arguably the most-lovable of all LSSU fans. Like his predecessors Freedom, Liberty, Yooper, Justice and Allegiance, the 20-week-old black lab puppy rarely misses a game.
“My wife, Judy, and I are so impressed with Kris and her support for allowing not only myself, but my whole group of puppy raisers to attend games,” said Klop in reference to LSSU Director of Athletics Kris Dunbar. “She has supported us so much over the years that I thought it was only fitting to name my next puppy in her honor. I am now raising one of my best, ‘Laker.’ He will do well whether he makes it as a Leader Dog or if he doesn’t and can fill someone’s home with much enjoyment.”
Klop began raising future Leader Dogs in 2009-10. He works with one puppy at a time from age 7 weeks to almost 15 months, teaching them basic socialization, commands and house breaking. There are four four-month phases to the training. Not all dogs make it to the final phase, but a waiting list of 300 names is available for puppies that aren’t placed with a blind individual. The net worth of a trained Leader Dog for the Blind is estimated at $40,000.
“The reason I started going to hockey games was for the puppies to hear the ship’s horn when the team scored a goal,” Klop said. “I try to get them to a game as quickly as I can so they get used to the noise and the loud cheering. I pet them on the top of the head, reassure them. Usually, after the first time, it’s no big deal anymore.”
“When Gary asked about bringing Leader Dogs to LSSU athletic contests, I was all for it,” Dunbar said. “The Leader Dogs are always well-behaved at the games and add to the family atmosphere we try to achieve. I feel privileged that Gary has asked the Athletic Department to assist with the training of these puppies, which will eventually help people with special needs.”
“I, too, am like a coach, and I have spent hours and hours watching what many coaches do and how they treat their players,” Klop said. “LSSU has some of the best coaches I have seen in all the sports – basketball, volleyball, hockey, softball, and on and on. The staff has also been top-notch and supported us so much over the past years. LSSU is a top-notch learning facility, and I wanted my puppies to be taught from some of the best in the teaching field. LSSU has made many students feel like part of a big family, and that is how I try to teach my puppies. The coaches nurture the growth of each student-athlete. They discipline and coach each player to be the best they can…My hat is off to LSSU and all the staff for all they do to try to make our world a little bit better.”
Dunbar is an unrepentant dog lover and so trusted by Klop, that she is one of only two people to whom he will ever consider handing over Laker’s leash.
“Part of our mission as an Athletic Department is to be involved with community organizations,” Dunbar added. “Working with Leader Dogs is one small way we can use some of our resources to help make a positive impact in the lives of others.”
Laker is Klop’s sixth Leader Dog puppy to attend LSSU events. Fans are accustomed to seeing the twosome at games and enjoy watching Klop train the puppies to maneuver the steps and obey commands. When the puppy is wearing his official jacket or vest, he is considered a “working dog” and not to be petted. Klop finds that young children are often the most-respectful of the rules, which are designed to teach the puppies to ignore distractions.
“A lot of the kids have pets at home and don’t get a chance to see them a lot,” Klop said. “Most of the athletes I let pet him.”
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“I just love Laker,” noted women’s basketball player Alexandra Morrow, who was recently spotted rubbing Laker’s belly before a game. “I have so much respect for what Gary does. It isn’t easy for him, knowing he has to give the dogs up.”
The junior nursing major appreciates the patience required to train the dogs and Klop’s attachment to his dogs.
“I like all of our fans who come to the games, but it’s nice knowing he is going to be at every game,” said Morrow, who is currently sidelined with an injury.
Generally, Laker can be found resting in Klop’s lap or lying on a nearby bleacher step when he visits Bud Cooper Gymnasium or Taffy Abel Arena. He never complains about a bad call or a heart-breaking loss. Like all puppies, he aims to please.
“He’s on a leash at all times, unless we’re in a fenced-in area or inside,” Klop said. “He’s working when he’s out in public. At home he’s a regular dog.”
Klop hopes to someday follow one of his puppies through the rest of its training. He tries to keep tabs on them once they’ve been placed. One of his favorites, Yooper, had allergies and didn’t pass the final physical. Yooper now resides locally with Dr. Shane Woolever.
Leader Dogs of the Blind is based in Rochester, Mich. Over 400 dogs empower people who are blind, visually impaired or deaf-blind with skills for a lifetime of independent travel, opening doors that may seem to have closed with the loss of sight. Thirty to 40 puppies are introduced to the training each month. The program, which began in 1939, has ties to the Lions Club, to which Klop has been a devoted member since 1988.
Klop, a Michigan Department of Corrections retiree, drives a school bus for Pickford Schools and works at Munoscong Golf Course during the summer. Laker is also a regular at youth sporting events.
“I spoke at Drummond Island two months ago and said, ‘Five years ago I lied to you all. I told you it wasn’t hard to give up the dogs, that it was like a business,” Klop said. “’Well I lied. A piece of you goes with them, but you know what you’re doing it for.’”
Evening News photo
Leader dogs and their trainers attending a Laker Hockey game in February, 2013: Suzanne Ramos and Jackson (from Midland), Tammy Barz and Dutch (from Flint), Frank Matejka and Rex (from Sault, Ontario), Greg and Pam Wagner and Sadona (from Pickford), Kim Christenson and Kasey (from Sault, Ontario), Mary Hall and Bella (from McMillan), and Gary Klop and Justice (from Pickford).