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Local student making a difference with dogs

Thirteen-year-old Connor takes German sheperd Usher out for a walk. Reminder Publications submitted photo
By Rick Sobey

Staff Intern

EAST LONGMEADOW Have you ever participated in some activity for your own enjoyment, such as a triathlon, and at the very same time you were helping the less fortunate by raising money? Have you ever had a situation when you were thinking of yourself at the beginning, but by the end of the event, you were only thinking of others?

Thirteen-year-old Connor Coughlin of East Longmeadow has definitely encountered these hypothetical circumstances in the past 11 months. During this time, he has had a very memorable experience with a special friend, and Connor is now a changed individual.

Connor has wanted to be the owner of a dog (specifically a puppy) since he was a young child. However, his parents were not entirely supportive of him obtaining a puppy. Then, one year ago in June his mother, Patricia Coughlin, told him about the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation Foster Program, which would satisfy Connor's wish of taking care of a puppy.

He initially participated in this program because he had a strong desire to own a puppy, but according to his mother, he is concluding the program with a different mindset.

"Today, Connor feels very proud of himself that he has done such a good job with the puppy," Patricia said. "He would love to continue fostering puppies and helping others who are at a disadvantage."

Connor, who attends Birchland Park Middle School, has been taking care of Usher since last summer. Usher is a German shepherd puppy, and he has been living in the Coughlin's residence since he was only eight weeks old. After these past 11 months with Connor, the puppy should be ready to guide the visually impaired in the near future.

"Connor has taken excellent care of Usher, and the puppy has definitely matured because of the fostering," Patricia said. "Connor had the responsibility of socializing the puppy, and he has succeeded at this. Usher has learned to play well with other dogs and people, he has learned how to handle different public areas and situations such as Christmas shopping, and he has learned how to sit, stay, leave objects alone and gather objects."

Unfortunately for Connor, these are the last few weeks together with Usher. The foundation has recently called and told him that the dog is ready for further training with a professional guide dog trainer.

"It is too bad that we have to give the dog back. That's the sad part," Patricia said. "However, Usher will be helping the visually impaired, so it's great that the dog will benefit someone and change that individual's life."

When Usher is done with his further training, he will be matched up with a graduate, a person who cannot see and who has applied for a guide dog. The dog will then be connected to this handicapped individual until the graduate eventually retires.

There are currently 75 guide dogs placed with graduates in Massachusetts and only 12 guide dogs in Western Mass.

Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation is located close by in Bloomfield, Conn., and Connor is thinking of possibly volunteering down there when he attends high school. Whether he fosters another puppy is another question.

"Connor would love to do it again," Patricia Coughlin said, "but we need a break for the moment. The dog is 24/7 and it's a huge commitment."

There will be an upcoming event for the foundation, and it is open to the public. The 2008 Walk for Fidelco is going to take place at Manchester Community College (MCC) in Connecticut on May 17 between 8:30 and 10:30 a.m.

The event will feature complimentary snacks and beverages to all walkers and their dogs. MCC is allowing people to use their paved hiking trails that wind through the wooded areas surrounding the campus. All proceeds go directly to the breeding, raising, training and placing of guide dogs with men and women who are visually impaired. For more information, contact Jan Adams at (860) 243-4801 or visit