Calabasas couple raises and trains puppies to help the visually impaired

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By Sylvie Belmond


FRIENDS FOREVER—Steve and Bonnie Sloane and the Labrador retriever they trained for Patrick Turnage, a blind man from Florida who will rely on the dog for years to come. FRIENDS FOREVER—Steve and Bonnie Sloane and the Labrador retriever they trained for Patrick Turnage, a blind man from Florida who will rely on the dog for years to come. A guide dog is a lifelong partner, confidant and soul mate for a visually impaired person.

But before it can become that special companion, the canine needs a loving individual or family who will raise it to become well-behaved and socialized, according to local volunteers who raise puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind.

The organization based in San Rafael, Calif. places puppies with foster families before the animals undergo intensive training to become service dogs.

Steve and Bonnie Sloane of Calabasas recently traveled to Northern California to take part in a graduation ceremony involving a dog they raised at their home for about a year.

Friday, a Labrador retriever, was paired with 31-year-old Patrick Turnage, a blind man from Florida who will care for and rely on the guide dog to get around safely for years to come.

“Watching the dog graduate and knowing what that dog means to the visually impaired person is beyond words,” Bonnie Sloane said. “It opens up their life. They can now go places and do things they could not do before.”

Established in 1942, Guide Dogs for the Blind pairs visually impaired people with skilled Labrador and golden retrievers.

Puppies are born at the Guide Dog kennels and placed with volunteers who teach them good habits in a nurturing environment.

At 14 to 18 months old, the dogs return to the Guide Dogs for the Blind campuses, where they are taught to safely guide someone through the complexities of pedestrian travel.

Visually impaired people who qualify for the program attend a two-week intensive training where they learn to negotiate stairways, elevators, overhead obstacles, crowded sidewalks and busy streets with their new dogs.

The Sloanes belong to a local chapter of Guide Dogs for the Blind made up of about 30 puppy raisers and dog sitters. The Puppies with a Vision group gathers twice a month at the Newbury Park Library to discuss behavior issues and share training tips.

Group members also go on outings, such as to the mall and on public transit, to get the puppies accustomed to various settings and noises.

“We do training and work with raisers to improve behavior as well as assist with issues they’re struggling with. Each dog is different and has its own issues,” said Alice Garcia, a district nurse for Las Virgenes schools who has raised 16 guide dogs in the past 10 years. The dogs accompany Garcia to local school campuses.

The Westlake Village woman raised 10 dogs from “cradle to college” and six “starter” puppies which she trained for two months or so before the animals were transferred to another home for guide dog training.

Puppy raisers usually receive the animal at 2 months old. They are responsible for teaching the puppies good house manners and basic obedience, and socializing them to the world.

“We do it because we enjoy the training and the puppy raising part of it. . . . Seeing our dogs graduate makes it all worthwhile. It’s like sending a child to college,” Garcia said.

“You’re sad to see them go but excited that they’re going on to the next phase and hopefully graduate and get a job.”

Guide dogs are trained to avoid distractions in restaurants, grocery stores and public transportation. They cannot chase balls, cats or jump on people.

The dogs are eager to work and please their owners. They also are taught to disobey unsafe commands, such as crossing a street if traffic is approaching.

“What we do is hard work, but it’s so fulfilling and fun,” said Sloane, who is raising her fifth puppy, named Keeley. “It’s a wonderful way to help somebody else, and it’s also a great social outlet for us.”

Between 50 and 60 percent of the dogs raised for the program go on to become guide dogs.

Sloane and her husband adopted Carnival, one of the dogs they raised, because she lacked the confidence to become an effective guide dog. The black Lab had a career change; she is now a therapy dog and brings comfort to people in nursing homes, hospitals and assisted living facilities.

Garcia and Sloane invite local residents to join the program. Volunteers of all ages and walks of life, including people with young children and pets, are welcome. Foster families must attend club meetings and show they have a safe environment for the dog. Puppies cannot be left alone for extended periods.

“We’re always recruiting new people who want to join the club and become puppy raisers or puppy sitters,” said Sloane, adding that host families take their dogs to work or school and wherever else canines are permitted.

Puppy raisers pay for pet food and toys; vet bills are covered by Guide Dogs for the Blind.

Guide dogs work until they are about 10 years old. Then the owners can either keep the retired dog or place it with a family member. If they can’t keep the animal, it will return to Guide Dogs for the Blind and be placed elsewhere.

“They will take back any dog at any time and make sure it’s cared for through life,” Garcia said.

Beneficiaries receive their guide dogs and training for free. The organization relies on private donations to care for its dogs and train the animals at two campuses, in San Rafael and in Boring, Ore.

For more information about training guide dogs, call (800) 295-4050 or visit www.guidedogs.com.

2013-02-21 / Pets

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