One would think that after 23 years of training guide dogs, it would get easier sending off canine companions to their new owners who need them.
That isn’t the case for Glendale resident Vikki Mele, who during Guide Dogs of America’s recent graduation celebration saw the 15th dog she has helped train, a black Labrador retriever named Charley, go home with his new owner, Henry Panick of Argenta, Ill., who is blind.
Although she has helped the Sylmar-based nonprofit for 23 years, and it pains her every time to see a dog she helped train move on to the job it was trained to do, Mele said seeing the joy and confidence the guide dogs bring to their companions inspires her to continue volunteering as a dog raiser.
“I hate turning the puppies in. I cry and usually have to pull off the freeway when I go turn them in,” Mele said.
“I just can’t imagine actually stopping. As much as I hate the days when I have to turn the dog in [to Guide Dogs of America], I love picking up the puppies and training them and starting all over,” she added.
With over two decades of helping raise guide dogs for the nonprofit, Mele has learned a thing or two about whether the canine she is training will turn out to be a good companion.
In the case of raising Charley, Mele said she was unsure about whether he would be an obedient guide dog because of his mischievousness.
However, when the time to return Charley to the nonprofit to finish his training drew closer, Mele said the black Lab proved to be a great guide dog in the making.
Mele, an emerging-needs coordinator at the Pasadena Christian School in Pasadena, said she would bring her guide-dog-in-training to campus with her every day so he could to get used to being around children, preteens, squirrels and vehicles.
Right before her eyes, she saw Charley go from an energetic and curious puppy to a well-trained guide dog who follows commands, ignores stimuli that might distract him and knows when to disobey commands when he knows a command could harm his companion.
“Watching Charley guide Henry was the pinnacle of what we do as puppy raisers,” Mele said. “It was surreal.”
With Charley now in the Midwest being the eyes and ears for his new owner, Mele and her husband, Louis, are already in the middle of training their 16th dog, whose name is Caddie.
Vikki Mele said Caddie, at 9 months old, is much different from Charley, and she can tell she and her husband have their work cut out for them.
“After seeing how well Charley did at graduation, I told Caddie, ‘OK, sweetheart, we got work to do,’” she said.
Guide Dogs of America is always looking for volunteers to help raise canines.