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Young Dogs, Old Tricks

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

From a gregarious puppy’s point of view, the restaurant was nirvana.

There were new hands to lick, exciting sights and sounds, and don’t those appetizers smell great?

But despite the hub-bub and temptations, 4-month-old Widget, a black Labrador, sat so quietly under the table that the waitress didn’t notice her until the main course was served.

Widget had passed the acid test to becoming a guide dog for the blind, and her trainer, Sheila Harvey of Mission Viejo, was beaming.

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“You never know what they’re going to do the first time out,” said Harvey. “Widget did great.”

Harvey is one of a select breed of people in Orange County who invest a year to train puppies to become guide dogs. The training involves turning the potential guide dog into a social animal capable of parting an ocean of tall-legged humans and recognizing potential harm to the visually impaired owner.

Trainers like Harvey take their young charges to grocery stores, restaurants and other public places to get them used to strange things and new people.

“We train them to provide mobility and freedom to their owner,” said Marie Thomas, program manager for the Sylmar-based Guide Dogs of America, which has four trainers in Orange County, including Harvey. “Once the harness comes off, these are just regular dogs, but while the harness is on, they have to be taught that they have a job to do.”

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Harvey picked up Widget from Guide Dogs of America when the pup was 8 weeks old.

She will train her for about a year, helping the dog socialize by getting it used to public places. Every six months, Widget will be taken to the group’s main office in Sylmar for her temperament and medical condition to be evaluated.

When Widget is about 14 to 16 months old, she will be turned over to the Sylmar office for her formal training in a harness. That will be the last Harvey will see Widget until a final visit when the dog graduates a few months later and is given to her permanent owner at no cost.

“That’s the hard part, letting them go,” said Joanne Ritter, a spokeswoman for the San Rafael-based Guide Dogs for the Blind, which has more than 1,000 trainers across the country, including 26 in Orange County.

“It’s not like having a puppy and putting it in your backyard,” she said. “A puppy raiser becomes so involved with the animal, it’s kind of like giving kids good parenting skills, and then they have to let them go.”

Widget is Harvey’s second trainee. The first, a German shepherd named Titan, went under Harvey’s wing for a year until she grew too large to be used as a guide dog and was washed out of the program.

“I was devastated when they dropped Titan,” said Harvey. “I cried like a baby.”

But one thing Harvey learned about herself is that she had the strength to train a guide dog and then pass it along to a new owner.

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“A lot of people do one dog and find out that it’s too hard to give it up,” she said. “It’s just too emotional. I’ve gotten into a mind set, one that tells me that I don’t own this dog, that I’m getting them ready for somebody who really needs them.”

Ritter said there is a chronic shortage of people willing to become guide dog trainers.

The pain of separating from the dog is one problem. Finding people with the free time available is another major obstacle, said Ritter.

“We do need puppy raisers,” she said. “It’s a labor-intensive job, a project that takes a lot of time. But it’s also very rewarding.”

Most groups that train guide dogs use German shepherds, golden retrievers or Labradors, said Thomas.

“These are very bright dogs with good temperaments that love people,” she said. “Those are the kind of dogs who like to be guide dogs.”

Preparing a dog to work with the blind has its challenges, said Harvey.

A guide dog trainer gets used to the stares from grocery store shoppers and restaurant patrons who aren’t used to seeing canines in places that sell food.

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“People do look at you sideways,” she said. “Some of them make little comments as they walk by you, but they don’t generally know what’s going on here.”

Harvey contacts the businesses she visits with Widget in advance. Although stores don’t have to let Widget inside, Harvey said she has never had a problem.

Each new place, whether it be a mall, restaurant or supermarket, has its own challenges for the dog.

The toughest part of dealing with a visit to the supermarket is getting a dog to walk next to a grocery cart.

“To a guide dog, the cart is big and squeaky and has a tendency to run over their paws,” Harvey said.

In a restaurant, guide dogs are supposed to stay out of sight underneath the table.

“I had all kinds of fears that Widget would jump on the table and go for the food,” Harvey said. “I had my foot on her leash and could feel her move around a little bit, but otherwise, there were no problems at all. I think Widget is going to make a fine guide dog.”


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