Fraternal twins, Linda Palminteri and her sister Lois Pappalardo, have more than their birthdays in common. Both women are affectionately known in the respective communities as the “lady with the dog.” Lois, a resident of Roslyn Heights who suffers from muscular dystrophy, enjoyed the companionship of her guide dog, Carmichael, for the past 14 years. When Carmichael passed away last September, Linda decided to honor his memory by becoming a guide dog trainer herself.
Linda currently resides at the Atlantic Shores retirement community in Virginia Beach. This is where she has been training her second guide dog pup, Athena, following the success of Joanie, the black lab she received in October from Guiding Eyes for the Blind. GEB, as the internationally accredited non-profit guide dog school with a 50-year legacy is known, selected Linda to fill the special role of a guide dog raiser, first for Joanie and now for Athena.
For Linda, a native of Wantaugh, this role is more than just about training cute puppies. Having experienced the impact guide dogs can have on the lives of the disabled, Linda knows how important GEB’s specialized training can be for both the dog and his or her permanent owner.
Carmichael and Lois went everywhere together, even to see Annie Oakley on Broadway. “He sat beneath our seats and did fine until they fired the guns,” Linda said, remembering one of Carmichaels more memorable excursions. On a daily basis, he helped Lois with the most basic tasks, like turning on a light or picking up anything she dropped.
Carmichael made it possible for Lois to live independently, and he transformed her public image. No longer was Lois just a wheelchair bound individual. She became the “lady with the dog,” Children, typically apprehensive about speaking to strangers, especially those their parents coach them not to stare at or speak to about their condition, approached her with bright smiles. Lois, who has worked with special-needs students in the Seaford, as well as the Center for Individual Living in Levittown, has plenty to share from both personal and professional experiences and welcomes just this sort of spontaneous sidewalk interactions. Carmichael helped humanize her within her own community, and as Linda described it, he was Lois’s “thrill of a lifetime.”
Today it is Linda who is experiencing a guide dog’s ability to bridge social gaps. The residents of Atlantic Shores and the nearby assisted living complex are overcome with “puppy love,” and the presence of these special dogs have brightened all the lives of the 500 residents and 300 staff. Linda’s duty as trainer is a major time commitment; aside from the weeks of training she went through before getting Joanie and Athena, she brings Athena to local elementary schools for socialization training among other required outings that will help her get accustomed to things like elevators and develop house manners. Her fellow community members help her remain a strict training schedule; when Athena wears her GEB bandana residents know not to pet her or speak to her. But when the bandana comes off, Athena gets to have her puppy time. “They’re not little soldiers 24/7,” Linda assured us.
Being a guide dog trainer has benefitted Linda in so many ways. It has brought her even closer to her twin despite the 500 miles that separate them, it has kept her active and on her feet, and it has given her the perfect opportunity to help people like her sister Lois in a tremendous way. Now Joanie is in Maryland, working on the second phase of her two-year long training. Dogs like Joanie and Athena move on to serve in a variety of ways, not just as guide dogs, but also as search and rescue, and therapy dogs for autistic children. Trainers like Linda have no say as to which job their puppies will ultimately assigned; GEB and the dogs’ personalities ultimately make that decision.
“If I had to pick, I’d say Joanie would be an excellent search and rescue dog,” Linda said, basing her assessment on Joanie’s athleticism. Either way, Joanie and Athena will be more than pets, more than companions and more than just working dogs. These dogs will develop a “bond like you cannot believe,” Linda tells us, reflecting on the time Carmichael shared with Lois. But, after all the challenges and successes, Linda’s favorite thing about training guide dogs is that all the dogs come from her home, New York.