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Prep school for puppies

Family find hardest part of training guide dogs is letting go
By: Lauren Weber, The Placer Herald
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Chap isn’t your ordinary 9-month-old Labrador retriever. Although he’s been known to tear up a few toys and make a mess during Christmas, he’s in training to become a guide dog for a blind person. For a few months now, the Wing family of Rocklin has been teaching Chap basic commands and socialization, preparing him for formal training at the Guide Dogs for the Blind campus in San Rafael. Becoming a guide dog is no walk in the park, Alan Wing said. “From the time they are born until the day they graduate, they can be dropped,” he said. A dog can be dropped for a number of reasons including health, behavior and not obeying commands. But the Wing family may have a knack for it – Chap is their fourth puppy in training and two previous puppies went on to become guide dogs for blind people living on the East Coast. Guide Dogs for the Blind began in 1942 by two people who recognized a need to help wounded World War II veterans who would return from war without their sight. The organization breeds and raises Labrador retriever, golden retriever and Labrador/golden retriever mix puppies at the campus and at the age of 8 to 9 weeks old, the puppies are sent out to begin puppy training in homes across the state. Each puppy raiser volunteers time to raise the puppy until about 13 to 18 months old, teaching basic obedience, relieving on command and socialization. But the training isn’t the hardest part – letting the dog go may be the tough aspect of puppy raising for Guide Dog trainers. After the family has done their part, the puppies go back to the campus for four to five months of formal training. After that, comes graduation with the puppy-raising families handing over the leash to the blind person. Alan said he has to remember why he’s doing it. When it comes time to say goodbye, Alan gives the puppy a little pep talk. “You’re mission here is done,” he said he tells the puppy. Daughter Rebecca Wing agrees, saying the hardest part is getting attached to the dogs. “They’re just a part of our life,” Alan’s wife, Lori said. A typical day for Chap includes riding along in the morning carpool to school, a walk with Lori before work and going along for daily errands around town. His green jacket lets people know he’s a Guide Dog puppy in training and is worn while out in public. One of the aspects of puppy-rising is socializing the dog. The Wings belong to the South Placer chapter of the Guide Dog Puppy Raising Club with approximately 20 other members and eight puppies-in-training. As a group in their weekly meetings, they expose the dogs to different things such as riding the public transportation, proper puppy care and obedience. There are also puppy-sitters within the club available for watching the puppies while owners vacation or need a break, Lori said. And sometimes a break is much needed, with puppies causing mischief. During Christmas, the Wings came home to find that Chap had attacked the Christmas tree. “He took the garland off, the Christmas lights off and attacked a present,” Lori said. But a little destructiveness is expected puppy behavior. “With all the dogs, we’ve had to replace flip-flops: chew toys,” Lori said. “Normal dog things.” Despite the mess the puppies are capable of causing, the family admits it’s all worth it. Lori said it doesn’t even feel like volunteer work to her. “It’s a lot of fun and it is so fulfilling because you do see your work at the end with someone who has a need for the dog,” Alan said. For more information on Guide Dogs for the Blind, call (800) 295-4050 or go to www.guidedogs.com. Contact Lauren Weber at laurenw@goldcountrymedia.com.