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Puppy raisers lead the way for guide dogs

Whenever Lorri Bernson went out alone with just her cane she found it to be extremely lonely. Thankfully, she found a companion to go out with her whenever she needed.

His name is Nigel and he has four legs.

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"It was scary at first because when all is said and done you're putting your life in the hands of a dog," Bernson said. "It takes six months to a year to completely trust in your dog like that."

Nigel, a golden retriever and former guide dog through Guide Dogs of America, retired when he turned 10. He had eight years of service under his harness.

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Bernson is visually impaired and said having a guide dog has changed her life.

"I know I wouldn't have the independence and confidence I have now without a guide dog," Bernson said.

Her experience made her want to work for the nonprofit that matches dogs with those who need their help, so today she is a public relations specialist and community liaison for the organization. She is also working with her second guide dog, Carter.

The first 18 months of both dogs' lives were spent with "puppy raisers," volunteers responsible for preparing a pup to be the best guide dog possible through socialization; taking the dogs everywhere to get them accustomed to being out around people and other animals. They also teach them basic commands, which are the foundation for their in-depth training.

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Each year, Guide Dogs of America graduates approximately 50 guide dog teams at a cost of $40,000 per team, $2 million in total. All the money comes from private or corporate donations.

Pasadena resident Mary Monroe and her family have volunteered for the job for almost four years and are currently in the process of training their third puppy, Rita.

"It has really became a family project for us and it's so incredibly awarding," Monroe said.

The first dog the family raised graduated and became a guide dog for a person who is visually impaired.

"For my kids to see how we raised this tiny, little puppy into a dog who is now drastically changing someone's life; that is such a great message," Monroe said.

Rita, a yellow lab, was 7 weeks old when she came to the Monroes. They have had her for just two weeks but she has already learned to sit, lie down, is in the process of grasping the "stay" command and has gone on a few errands to restaurants and the grocery store.

After their 18 months together are up, Rita and the Monroes will go their separate ways. The Monroes will return Rita to Guide Dogs of America so she can begin her in-depth guide-dog training, learning how to lead someone; eventually being paired up with someone who could greatly benefit from a guide dog.

Once Nigel retired and before she received Carter, Bernson lost more than just a guide dog.

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"A common misconception is that all guide dogs do is work," Bernson said. "Well that just isn't true, when they are home the harness is not on and they are no longer a guide dog. They have down time and during that time their only job is only to be a good pet."

About 40% of all the dogs that begin the program graduate to become a certified guide dog. If the dogs don't graduate their puppy raisers have the first shot at adopting them. If they choose not to, there is a seven-year waiting list of people waiting to gain a well-trained pet.

Judy Reilly, a La Crescenta resident, has trained nine puppies in 11 years. She has adopted three of those dogs who didn't become certified.

Monroe and Reilly both agree that it's difficult to make it through graduation with dry eyes.

"I end up spending more time with my dog than I do my husband," Reilly said. "I wish I could say it gets easier giving your dog up, but there are always tears."

At the same time, they agree it's all worth it; seeing a dog they trained go on to serve a great purpose.

"It's difficult, but you know from day one it's not your dog," Monroe said. "But you still raise and fall in love with the dog. It's kind of treated like you've done as much as you can and now they're going off to college."

On the other hand, Bernson said a fear of every guide dog user is that their dog won't love her anymore once they see their puppy raiser again during graduation ceremonies.

"You fear the dog won't really love you anymore after it sees their puppy raiser for the first time in six months," Bernson said. "The dog goes crazy when it sees their puppy raiser, but after awhile it returns to the person they are guiding. It's exciting and nerve racking all at the same time, but it's an amazing full circle."

Louise Henderson, Puppy Department manager for Guide Dogs of America, said she is always looking for more puppy raisers.

For more information on becoming a puppy raiser or getting involved with Guide Dogs of America in some other way visit their website at http://www.guidedogsofamerica.org or call Henderon at (818) 833-6441.

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