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Service dogs graduate from Guide Dogs for the Blind program in Boring

By Emily Fuggetta, Oregon Live

856 days ago   Article ID# 1518411
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Guide Dogs for the Blind

PORTLAND, OREGON (Oregon Live) - Dottie Owens has a new shopping partner — one she trusts with her life.

Two weeks ago, Owens, a 54-year-old who suffers near-total blindness from a disease called retinitis pigmentosa, was skeptical about putting her complete trust in an animal. But after just one day with her new service dog, an 18-month-old Labrador named Kia, Owens said the fear vanished.

Owens, who lives in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., spent the last two weeks training with Kia and four other dog-and-handler pairs at the Boring campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind, a California-based nonprofit that trains service dogs and matches them with legally blind people across the continent.

The pairs were introduced Saturday at the campus, 32901 S.E. Kelso Road in Boring, before heading home to Washington, Ohio, Tennessee and Canada.

Owens, who has been losing her sight over the past several years and now has only central vision, said she tried walking with a cane but thought a guide dog would be a better fit.

"I'm so excited about living back home and being able to walk in my neighborhood and not worry about a car coming or tripping on something or a tree limb smacking me in the face," Owens said.

For Madeline Rannow, a 20-year-old Central Washington University student who attended Saturday's ceremony with her dog, Rudy, becoming a handler will mean freedom.

"Having him around is going to make me more confident," said Rannow, who has only limited vision in her left eye. "I'm not going to be as hesitant as I was or feel like I shouldn't try things."

Rannow said she and Rudy bonded quickly during their two-week training session.

"He's just like a pet, except this one will really look out for me," she said. "He's going to be there to support me, and that's going to make life easier."

That sense of security is the reason Guide Dogs for the Blind's Labradors and golden retrievers undergo more than 18 months of training before placement with handlers, said Michelle Cliborn, a training instructor who has worked with dogs and handlers for 15 years.

"There's just an additional responsibility a service animal has over pets," Cliborn said. "They're responsible for the safety of their person, so they have to respect their handler and understand a work ethic."

About eight weeks after birth near San Rafael, Calif., where the dogs are bred, the organization's puppies are placed in homes across the Western United States with "puppy raisers," who spend 14 to 18 months house training the puppies and socializing them by taking them everywhere they go — including school, work, shopping and community activities.

Joanne Mechling, a 46-year-old from Portland, brought soon-to-be guide dog Kyle to the ceremony, where he watched politely — though with a few yawns — while the older dogs took the stage.

Mechling, who brings Kyle everywhere she goes, including to work at her downtown Portland office, has raised nine guide puppies in the past decade.

She said while it might seem like it's all work for service dogs — behaviors like playing fetch or greeting other dogs without permission, for example, are off limits — but Kyle loves tug-of-war and plays with Mechling's other dogs in his down time. And as long as his handler gives the OK, Kyle can have all the scratches he wants.

Kyle and other puppies in training, like Isabella, who lay calmly next to Kyle as their raisers chatted after the ceremony, wear puppy vests to introduce them to the idea of "work clothes" — the harnesses they'll wear as adults.

"They learn when your vest is on, you're on duty," Mechling said.

After their time with puppy raisers, the dogs are sent to the Boring and San Rafael campuses, where they go through at least 10 weeks of formal guidework training, including navigation commands and the skill of intelligent disobedience, which means the dog knows when to refuse a command that might put its handler in danger.

On Saturday, Cliborn showcased some service dog moves with 18-month-old Danvers, who will be paired with a handler in the coming weeks. Danvers guided Cliborn up and down ramps and stairs, pausing before the elevation changed, and stopped her to indicate an obstacle when the pair came to a pipe in their path.

Finally, the dogs spend two weeks at the campuses adapting to their new handlers and helping their human counterparts learn to be part of a team.

During their training course, the pairs practiced navigating environments similar to those they'll face day to day — including downtown Portland, country roads, shopping centers and malls. Kia, Owens said, turned out to be a natural shopper, just like her handler.

"She has her little shopping boots," Owens said, "and she travels up that escalator like nobody's business."

Copyright 2014 Oregon Live   (Copyright Terms)
Updated 856 days ago   Article ID# 1518411

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