If anyone would have told Chris Sellman 4½ years ago that he would own a dog, let alone a guide dog, he would have said they were nuts.
But after serious and sudden medical problems resulting in complete blindness in his right eye and about 10 percent functionality of his left eye, which is still fading, Sellman is the proud owner of Obi, a 4-year-old black Labrador retriever whom he met about two years ago.
"You can't imagine sitting in your house day in and day out trying to figure out what you're going to do for the rest of your life," Sellman said. "This gives you the opportunity to go out in the community and be active."
This pairing was made possible by Guide Dogs of America, a nonprofit that provides guide dogs to qualified visually impaired people older than 18.
According to Robin Hartford, a Henderson resident who works with Guide Dogs of America, the organization came about in 1948 when a retired member of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, Joseph Jones, needed a guide dog.
"He was turned down because he was told he was too old," Hartford said.
To ensure that would never happen to anyone else, Jones founded his own program.
After an extensive screening process, qualified individuals with visual impairments are flown to the organization's California-based campus at no cost to go through a pairing program where they receive their skilled Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers or German shepherds.
The program has graduated more than 3,000 guide dog teams in the United States and Canada and averages about 50 teams per year. Las Vegas has had three teams go through the program.
The organization estimates that it takes about $42,000 to produce a dog companion, train the team and offer follow-up services. All service dogs are provided at no charge.
Hartford said that to offer its services, the organization puts on fundraisers.
"We receive no grants or funding from the government," Hartford said.
The organization is planning to have its 32nd annual William W. Winpisinger Charity Banquet at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 17 at Caesars Palace, 3570 Las Vegas Blvd. South. Tickets are $175 in advance and $200 at the door.
"This event is our biggest fundraiser," Hartford said.
Sellman is expected to share his story at the event and explain how he has reaped the benefits of the program.
For Sellman, what started out as a stomach ache about four years ago rapidly turned into medical issues such as kidney failure and a stroke that led to the onset of his blindness.
During his recovery, Sellman went through therapy to learn how to use a walking stick and function around the house. His therapist eventually encouraged him to apply for a guide dog.
"It is quite the process," Sellman said.
As part of an extensive application process, Sellman had to submit references, a video chronicling him working around the neighborhood and go through a 90-minute phone interview.
"They want to make sure you're good with the dog," he said.
When Sellman was selected, he was flown to the California facility and attended monthlong training to learn how to work with Obi and take care of him.
"It was a strict regimen," Sellman said. "Kind of like boot camp without people yelling."
During his training, Sellman was asked to walk through an obstacle course with his cane. The three-minute-plus time didn't seem out of the ordinary until Obi guided him through the same course in 1 minute and 38 seconds.
Before Obi, Sellman tried to brave the streets with his white cane in hand - an effort that proved dangerous.
"One time I almost got clipped (by a car) walking across the street by someone who wasn't paying attention," he said.
Even with indicators such as the cane, crowds weren't always friendly to Sellman. He tried going to a concert at the MGM Grand.
"I just got beat up," Sellman said.
Since getting Obi, Sellman has returned to the venue and said there was a notable difference in how he handled the crowd.
Obi's guidance makes walking faster and safer.
"He is trained to have disobedience intelligence," Sellman said, meaning if he prompts Obi to move forward when a car is coming, the dog won't go. "Instead, he says, 'I'm going left, and you're coming with me.' "
Sellman said he couldn't imagine his life without Obi and hopes people continue to support the organization.
For more information, visit guidedogsofamerica.com.
Contact Henderson/Anthem View reporter Michael Lyle at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-5201.