Seeing to Walter's training

The gardeners on Woodland Avenue like to get started early, and on this particular morning their leaf blowers are loud enough to send the average household pet into a frenzy.

But eight-month-old Walter does little more than perk his ears up and survey the scene through a screened window before returning to a chewed-up doggie toy.

The controlled behavior was learned during months of intensive training under the Guide Dogs of America puppy program, meant to prepare the animals for their eventual careers as guides for the blind.

“It is amazing to see how they grow and progress and change,” said Nicole Abranian, who is helping to train Walter with her mother, long-time Verdugo Woodlands Elementary School teacher Sheila Treston-Abranian.

It is a commitment that the dog-loving family embraced two years ago, not long after the deaths of their own pets.

The program is rigorous, said Louise Henderson, manager of the puppy department at Guide Dogs of America. The organization breeds its own animals to achieve the right mix of smarts and obedience. The dogs spend about 18 months living with volunteer puppy trainers before returning to the organization’s headquarters for an additional six months of formal guide training.

“What we need when the dog comes into formal training is a dog that is very well socialized, knows his basic obedience and has good house manners,” Henderson said.

Only about half of the dogs make it through, she said. The rest are put up for adoption. The Abranian’s first puppy in training — Fergie — washed out for medical reasons and is now their family pet.

Walter, a black Labrador, is still on track. The list of forbidden behaviors is long. He is learning not to pull on his leash, not to jump on strangers, not to lunge at other animals and not to chase tennis balls. Mistakes are corrected immediately.

Wearing a bright yellow vest that identifies him as a guide dog in training, he accompanies the Abranians everywhere, including work, the grocery store and jury duty at the Burbank courthouse. The idea is to expose him to everything he might encounter as a guide dog.

“The judge — she wanted to take him home,” Sheila Treston-Abranian said.

The dog recently joined Nicole Abranian on a trip to Washington D.C., where she was visiting her boyfriend, a law student at Georgetown University. Passing through security at Los Angeles International Airport was largely uneventful, although onlookers were surprised at Walter’s calm behavior, she said.

“He can’t have any of his metals on, so they make me take his jacket off, his collar off,” Nicole Abranian said. “I put him in a ‘sit,’ and tell him to stay. Then I have to walk through security, and then turn around and call him through. He was perfect.”

Walter is now so well behaved that he often goes unnoticed at restaurants and other public spaces, the Abranians said. Petting is allowed, as long as he is behaving himself, they added.

The dog has proven to be a hit with Sheila Treston-Abranian’s third-grade students. She has even taken to using him as an incentive. When children are well behaved, they can earn coupons that allow them to take Walter for a walk at lunch, or read a book to Walter on the rug.

Students have sent her letters during summer break inquiring about the dog’s progress, she added.

Sheila Treston-Abranian is not the first Glendale teacher to have a service dog in training in her classroom, said school board President Joylene Wagner. District officials largely view it as a positive thing — teachers establish clear parameters, and the students love having the animals around.

“Our experience has been that it has been a wonderful addition to the classroom, particularly for kids who might not have experience with dogs,” Wagner said.

Walter will return to organization headquarters for an evaluation later this month before continuing his stay with his puppy trainers. And if he meets all the requirements, he will start formal guide training in spring 2012.

The Abranians said they are already dreading having to say goodbye. But knowing he will go to a grateful owner should help ease the sting, they said.

“Once you meet one person who has received [a guide dog], and they tell you their whole life is changed 100%, you are like, ‘OK, I can give him up,’” Sheila Treston-Abranian said.


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