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December 20, 2013

NYC hero dog had local roots, training

By Greg Klein Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — Orlando, the guide dog that tried to save a blind New York City man from falling onto the subway tracks in Harlem on Tuesday, grew up in Cooperstown. 

The black Labrador was feted by media nationwide this week after he tried to stop his owner, 61-year-old Cecil Williams, from falling, then came to the man’s aid as a subway train approached.

He was trained by the Livermore family, who are longtime Cooperstown residents, as part of an Oneonta program. 

According to Garet Livermore, Orlando, who trained as part of the Guiding Eyes for the Blind program, was with his family from 2004 to 2006.

“As a puppy raiser, we did basic training, worked with Orlando in a wide variety of environments to familiarize him with what he may encounter as a working dog and did specific training exercises at the direction of the Guiding Eyes staff,” Livermore said in an e-mail to The Daily Star on Thursday. “Our time with Orlando was wonderful; he was a great dog that even as a Lab puppy was very calm and thoughtful. He passed all of his initial tests with flying colors and has gone on to a full life working with Cecil.”

“The dog saved my life,” Williams told multiple media outlets Tuesday. He said that Orlando was barking, as he is trained to do, as Williams got too close to the end of the platform at the 125th Street subway station. But Williams did not heed the warning in time and he fell over the edge as a train was coming. Orlando tried to pull Williams up, but instead was pulled onto the tracks with him.

Williams was knocked unconscious in the fall and Orlando tried to wake him by licking his face. As Williams regained consciousness, he was urged to get down by onlookers as a train approached. The subway conductor saw the duo on the tracks and slowed down. The train passed over them, but neither was seriously injured. Williams was admitted to St. Luke’s Hospital with minor injuries suffered in the fall.

“We are very happy that a near tragedy was averted when both Cecil and Orlando survived the fall onto the tracks of the oncoming A train,” Livermore said in the email.

In a follow-up phone interview on Thursday, Livermore said that he learned about Orlando’s heroics from relatives. “Some family members called and said ‘wasn’t your dog named Orlando?’ So we went to the NBC news site and that was him.

“We’re very proud of both of them, Cecil and Orlando,” he continued. “Cecil lives way out in Brooklyn and he manages to get around the city and do his work with the help of Orlando. They have built a wonderful life together. Orlando, he was just born for this job.”

Livermore said his family got Orlando from Guiding Eyes when the dog was two months old, and had him nearly two years. While multiple news organizations have said the dog is 11 years old, Livermore said that figure is wrong; Orlando is nine. 

While in Cooperstown, Orlando often went out to local events, including Harvest Festival, Candlelight Evening at the Farmers’ Museum, Main Street parades and the Baseball Hall of Fame Induction.

“It was sometimes a bit of a challenge training him in Cooperstown,” Livermore said. “We tried to take him out wherever we could to get him used to people. We would take him to The Farmers’ Museum. I used to work there, although I don’t anymore. We would take him to parades and the induction. Sometimes we would take him on buses, just to get him used to it.”

“Basically, you are just training him to get used to people and to be in an urban environment,” he said. 

The Livermores trained another puppy after Orlando, a lab named Nevis. Nevis also left to be a guide dog, but didn’t do as well as Orlando. He retired from service early and was offered to the Livermores, who were happy to have him back. 

“Basically, they are a member of your family,” Livermore said. “It is hard to let them go, but it is a wonderful organization.” 

Orlando had been scheduled to retire in January, and Williams said Tuesday that he would have to give him up because he could not afford to keep him, and his insurance would not pay for a “non-working” dog.

However, Guiding Eyes reported Wednesday that they had gotten several anonymous donations that would allow Orlando to stay with Williams. Other national media outlets that reported on the story Tuesday also indicated on Wednesday that they had been overwhelmed with offers to help Williams keep Orlando.

“It is a great Christmas story,” Livermore said, adding that, “it has been an extraordinary testament to the generosity of people around the country who have donated to support Cecil as he transitions to another Guiding Dogs and seeks to keep his longtime friend Orlando with him.”

The Leatherstocking chapter of the Guiding Eyes group, which assigned Orlando to the Livermores, meets at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Oneonta on Thursday nights.

“They are a wonderful organization,” Livermore said. “They’re a world leader in this. People come from all over the world to study Guiding Eyes and what they do.” 

Livermore is the former vice president for education of the New York State Historical Association and The Farmers’ Museum. He is the executive director at Great Camp Sagamore in Raquette Lake. His wife, Mary, who is a nurse at Bassett Medical Center, and their daughter, Grace, are both Cooperstown Central School graduates, and their son, Tae, is a junior at CCS.