Guiding paws

Andrew Crane, who has cerebral palsy and has been legally blind since birth, had had Orzo for less than a month when he and his parents learned just how valuable a guide dog could be.

They were in a parking lot, and "Andrew was walking with Orzo, and we were talking and stuff, and I didn't notice it — my wife didn't either — but a car backed out from a parking spot," his father, Dave Crane, said.

"Orzo saw it, and stopped Andrew," he said. "We all stopped, and we just said, 'Wow.'

"Even when you don't realize it, the dog is watching out for him."

Orzo, a 3-year-old black Labrador retriever, has changed his son's life, Dave Crane said, giving him the confidence and security he needs to get along in the world.

"I've seen his confidence just soar with this dog," he said. "He does a lot more things."

Andrew, 22, who has the youthful looks and exuberance of a teenager, calls Orzo, whom he obtained a year ago through Guiding Eyes for the Blind, his best friend.

"Me and him," he says, "are like two peas in a pod."

Andrew and Orzo will give a presentation next weekend at Exploration Place, where Andrew is a volunteer. A video will show how Guiding Eyes, based in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., breeds, raises and trains guide dogs and matches them with people like Andrew.

Andrew learned about Guiding Eyes a couple of years ago at a computer camp sponsored by Envision.

He filled out an application, and Guiding Eyes representatives made a couple of visits to his home. They decided he was a good candidate for a guide dog, and he was off to New York for 26 days of training.

Guiding Eyes picked up the tab for Andrew's plane fare, room and board and training, as well as the cost of Orzo.

The dogs are provided free of charge, said Michelle Brier, marketing manager for Guiding Eyes, which matches 180 dogs with clients every year, about 10 percent of those special-needs clients like Andrew.

The costs — an average of $45,000 per client-dog team — are covered by public support and voluntary contributions, Brier said.

It was love at first meeting for Andrew and Orzo, the dog specially chosen for him and his needs.

"They brought him into my dorm, and the first thing he did, he jumped right into my arms," Andrew said. "I knew that I had a buddy and a best friend."

Training days were long, Andrew said, and included teaching the dog obedience commands and navigating New York City streets, buses and subways.

"You name it, we did it," he said, including meeting blues legend B.B. King.

Andrea Martine, the trainer who worked with Andrew and Orzo, said training also includes caring for the dog — keeping it in top physical condition and "presentable in the public," which means daily grooming.

The client must learn to be a strong leader but also to balance the dog's demanding work life with play, she said.

"Guiding is very serious business," Martine said. "It's a lot of responsibility for four little paws."

For Andrew, having Orzo meant that he was able to move out of his parents' home and into an apartment.

"It's helped him feel safer. I don't think without Orzo he would be able to handle an apartment by himself," Dave Crane said.

Orzo has also taught Andrew a sense of responsibility, his father said.

"He has to care for him, and that has changed his attitude," he said.

Andrew's mother, Deborah, said knowing that Andrew has Orzo has given her peace of mind.

"As a mom I'm just so appreciative," she said. "When they're out by themselves, it makes me feel like Orzo's going to take care of him."

Andrew, who wears braces on his legs, used to have to hold on to his parents when he walked, but that's not necessary with Orzo guiding the way, she said.

With his new confidence, Andrew "thinks he can do just about anything," his mom said.

"We still say, 'You've got a disability. You still have to take it easy.' "

In most ways, Andrew is just like anybody else, his dad said. One thing's that been difficult for him: not being able to find a job.

"This is a time when it's not easy for anybody, but especially people with disabilities," Dave Crane said. "With his limited sight, he's limited in the things he can do."

But Andrew keeps busy volunteering at Exploration Place, where he stuffs envelopes and does "whatever else they need me to do," and he recently landed a part-time job greeting Wingnuts fans and tearing tickets at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, Orzo by his side.

Andrew's parents have to drive him to work, the grocery store and church, but "anywhere he goes, he takes that dog," Dave Crane said.

Orzo is serious when he's "on duty," Andrew said, but when he removes his harness, "he's like a big puppy. He loves to play and he loves to go fishing with me."

The people at Guiding Eyes "matched me up really, really good" with Orzo, Andrew said.

"His attitude is just like mine: happy-go-lucky."