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Going To The Dogs - Local Students Are Puppy Trainers For Guide Dog Program

Going To The Dogs - Local Students Are Puppy Trainers For Guide Dog Program

Amy Schenck working with Kristin on certain commands.

POSTED May 29, 2012 11:29 p.m.
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It’s a huge responsibility — one that the whole family has to agree upon — but three local Oakdale kids are shouldering that responsibility without reservation as they serve as official puppy raisers for the Guide Dogs For The Blind program.

Julie Schenck and her daughter Amy Schenck are raising a 7-month-old golden lab named Kristin; Kevin McBride and his daughter Soraya McBride are raising a 3-month-old black lab named Benito; and Lorna Mason and her daughter Emily Mason are raising a yellow lab named Virgil and a 3-month-old half-golden retriever, half-golden lab named Tommy.

Emily and Virgil were a common sight at the Oakdale High School campus and recently Amy started taking Kristin to the junior high campus but the puppies that haven’t had their final vaccinations aren’t allowed on grass so they just hung out at home with the girls’ parents until the girls returned home.

“I’ve always been interested in doing this,” said Emily, who just completed her sophomore year and aspires to be a veterinarian when she grows up. Emily and her mother Lorna were introduced to the Guide Dog program when they ran into puppy raisers at the Chocolate Festival last year. The chance meeting sparked a call to action and soon they were attending meetings at the local puppy club in Modesto and learning how they could become involved.

The Guide Dogs For The Blind program was incorporated in May 1942 and began instruction of students in a rented home in Los Gatos, California, south of San Jose. A German shepherd named “Blondie” was one of the first dogs trained.

Blondie had been rescued from a Pasadena dog pound and later paired with Sgt. Leonard Foulk, the first serviceman to graduate from the new school. Since that beginning more than 70 years ago, the program has graduated more than 10,000 Guide Dog teams.

But it’s not a walk in the park to graduate the program to go on to be an official Guide Dog.

Only 50 percent make the grade, but that doesn’t mean all that training goes down the drain. On the contrary, they simply undergo a career change.

“They might become another type of therapy dog instead or there is the option to go back to the training family,” Lorna explained.

Dogs born and bred into the program remain special for their entire life, no matter where they end up. In fact, even if the dog is adopted by the family that trained him as a puppy and they later cannot keep him, the dog is returned to the Guide Dog Program. And they are never euthanized just because they are no longer a good fit for their “job.”

“These are really special dogs, not just your regular labs,” Julie Schenck said.

The dogs are specifically bred for temperament and intelligence, which makes them highly sought after, even to adopt.
“There’s often a really long waiting list,” Lorna said.

Although there are clubs all over California, the Modesto puppy raising club has the most members.

Lorna and Emily inspired Julie and her daughter Amy, to give the program a try.

“Our family dog had died and we missed the doggy experience,” said Julie. “We were friends with the Masons and they encouraged us to try puppy raising. We discovered it’s a big commitment and the whole family has to be on board.”

But they soon fell in love with the challenge and Kristin was introduced to their family.

Amy took Kristin to the junior high with her for half the day and then her mom took over for the other half until Amy returned home.

The main job for puppy raisers is to socialize and teach obedience, Lorna said.

But just as they are teaching the dogs, the process is teaching the puppy raisers, too.

“There are a lot of rules, such as keeping the puppy on a leash at all times, certain words are no-nos, no bedding in the crate…it’s not a decision you make lightly,” Julie said.

“I thought I knew a lot about dogs until I became a puppy raiser for the program. I’ve learned so much about training that I can use with my personal dogs,” Lorna said.

Julie agreed, saying, “That’s one of the benefits, you will know how to train your own dog after being a puppy raiser.”
The club pays for all vet bills and provides the crates, but the puppy raisers pay for the food.

“They also have to turn in monthly puppy reports,” said Kevin McBride, where the girls make sure to note any nicknames they use for the puppy that will heighten the connection between the dog and its eventual owner.

All the girls have walked miles in circles, teaching their puppies proper obedience and have certainly spent sleepless nights listening to their puppies howl as they adjusted to crate training, but in the end, they know it’s worth it.

“It’s very rewarding, there’s a sense of accomplishment,” Emily said. “But you need to have patience.”

As they started their puppy training and people started seeing them with their dogs, the inevitable questions started, though the girls were surprised by some of the questions.

“One person asked me if I feed the dog,” Amy said, laughing. “Of course, we feed the dog!”

Overall, it’s a learning experience for all involved.

“It’s a good opportunity,” Soraya said. “You get to help someone if they pass the test. It’s a lot of responsibility but it’s fun when you think about the bigger picture that you’re helping someone.”

Amy said, “Everything takes longer and it takes a lot of time for training and the meetings but it’s fun.”

The puppy raisers will have their charges until they are “recalled” between 14 to 18 months. Then the dogs will undergo another five months of formal training with licensed Guide Dog mobility instructors before they can graduate the program.

Graduation day is filled with tears of joy and sadness as they say goodbye to their beloved charges but watch as they start their lives with their new blind owners.

“I was getting choked up talking to a friend about graduation,” Kevin admitted.

Lorna said they’ve yet to go through a graduation with one of their dogs but they’ve attended a few and there’s always tears.

Puppy raisers will always get updates on how their dogs are doing in their training and which phase they are currently in, so the sadness of letting go isn’t quite as traumatic.

And as an added bonus, puppy raisers have the option of receiving a new puppy on the same day that they let go of their previous one.

“It’s good because you’re distracted with the new puppy so you’re not too sad about the one you said goodbye to,” Lorna said.

The Guide Dog For The Blind program is not government funded and operates solely on donations.

For more information on how to become a puppy raiser or how to donate to this cause, go to

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