Leader Dogs for the Blind, the Rochester-based organization that places free guide dogs with blind and visually impaired people around the world, has added high-tech training in spoken-word GPS devices to its services.

Leader Dogs, established in 1938 in a farmhouse and apple orchard at what was then a sleepy country crossroads, Rochester and Avon roads, has been studying GPS technology for use by the blind since 2003, according to Harold Abraham, director of program services for the organization.

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Since then, the devices have become smaller and cheaper. A $2,000 early-2000s PDA from Hewlett Packard, outfitted with a clunky sleeve that put buttons over a touch screen keyboard, has been replaced — first by a $900 Trekker Breeze, a spoken-word GPS device, and more recently by a $400 Kapsys Kapten, a GPS device developed by a French company for urban pedestrians, but which has now been adapted to the visually impaired.

“We’re partnering with GPS providers to create and pilot…. the perfect GPS for somebody who’s visually impaired or blind,” Leader Dogs CEO Gregory Grabowski said.

The Trekker Breeze is now standard equipment for Leader Dog recipients’ four-week training course with their dogs, according to COO Rod Haneline.

“We give it to people four days after they get their dogs,” Haneline said. “We let them keep it if they like it or give it back if they don’t.”

After all, Grabowski said, a guide dog can tell you when it’s safe to cross a busy street — but not that you’re on the corner of Seventh and Main, and that Italian restaurant where you want to meet someone is two blocks to your left.

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The GPS is part of the remarkable generosity of Leader Dogs. The organization operates on an $11 million a year budget, all raised through philanthropy — in fact, last year, despite the economy, it had its best year of fund-raising ever — and everything it provides for its blind clients is free, from the dog to the harness to the grooming equipment — to the Trekker.

Leader Dogs brings in classes of about 30 blind and visually impaired people at a time, for 26 days of intensive residential training with their dogs. The people stay at a special hotel created with their needs in mind on Leader Dogs’ leafy campus.

Haneline, Grabowski and Abraham say the organization is on constant lookout for new technology that might improve the lives of the blind and visually impaired, from GPS units to other mapping technologies to indoor navigation technologies. Leader Dogs is also studying a $70 GPS route recorder originally intended for runners and bike riders who want to track their routes, distances and speeds. The blind could use it to track their travels as well, and find familiar routes later.

Ultimately, Grabowski said, there will be robots able to perform the functions of today’s guide dogs. But robot technology that sophisticated is still a good number of years in the future — and there’s also the X factor of the companionship a guide dog provides, since so many blind people live in isolation.

More at www.leaderdog.org/programs/dogguide/index.php or www.leaderdog.org/programs/trekker/index.php.

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