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Puppy love

Raising guide dogs for the blind is a family affair for one Cedar Mill home
by: Nick Fochtman Paige Lee and her family are raising their sixth puppy for Guide Dogs for the Blind. Delia is in training to one day be paired with a blind or visually impaired companion.

Raising a puppy takes a great deal of patience and attention.

When that puppy will one day be the eyes and companion for a blind person, the challenge of training and preparing the future guide dog for what will be asked of her becomes very important.

'It's a very big responsibility,' said Peggy Wittenauer-Lee, whose Cedar Mill family is raising its sixth puppy for Guide Dogs for the Blind. 'It's like having a baby. You want to do everything right and be safe.

'You want to create good habits for them.'

Her daughter Paige Lee agreed.

'Everything you do has a purpose,' said Paige, who lives in West Haven and teaches fifth grade at St. Pius X School. 'When you are training a puppy, you have to think about what it would be like to be a blind person.

'For example, you have to tell yourself not to step over the dog when she is in your way. You have to walk through her and get her used to being present with her owner. We want to make sure she knows to get up and move.'

Delia, who has been with the family for four weeks, is catching on quickly.

'Blaise has a way with puppies,' Peggy said as she looked over at her youngest daughter Blaise Wittenauer-Lee working with Delia.

'We're teaching her how to play tug,' Paige explained. 'We initiate and stop the game.'

On the floor nearby, Blaise calls an end to a round of tugging.

'OK, that's enough,' she said, prompting Delia to drop the toy and sit.

As Delia anxiously waited for the command to resume the game, the 17-year-old Jesuit High School junior noted, 'This is her first toy, her little white snuggie, so she really likes it. She's really learning this game.'

Family affair

Raising guide dog puppies is a family commitment that began in 2007.

'We're a busy family and raising these puppies has really brought us together,' said Paige. 'It unifies us.'

Everyone in the family takes turns taking the puppy on outings to work, school or running errands. Everyone plays an important role in introducing the puppy to new people, environments and possible distractions or hazards.

With Delia and the five puppies before her, Peggy and her family follow a training manual, which carefully outlines when to introduce the puppy to new things and experiences in order to maximize the dog's potential for success. In order for a dog to be placed with a blind partner, the dog must pass 10 phases of obedience and guidework training and be dependable in all ways - health, temperament and skills.

To give the puppy its best chance of becoming a guide dog, the family also attends classes with a local Sightmasters Puppy Club.

'It's like a moms' support group,' Peggy said. 'You can talk about puppy woes and get ideas of how to deal with any issues. We also work on things together and make sure everyone is on the same page.

'We have a great support network and a mentor who is always available and very supportive.'

Everything is uniform about the training, Paige added.

'It was interesting taking Delia to her first meeting with just the puppies,' she said. 'Delia's the youngest, but I've noticed that she knows when it's time to be serious and focused.

'They each have a little green jacket you put on. Once they are suited up, they're ready to go. When it's off, she's released to being a puppy again.'

In puppy class, Delia jumps right into performing skills from responding to her name to socializing to working on walking alongside her handler on a gentle leader also called a halty head collar. When she gets tired, her handler for the day will take off the vest and let her rest.

During a recent class, Paige noticed that Delia seemed to be observing what the older dogs were doing while she sat out for a spell. 'I really believe she's learning and taking it all in,' Paige said. 'I believe they are really intelligent dogs.'

While even grooming and petting serve a purpose to prepare the puppy for her future, there is no shortage of love in the house for the dog, Delia's temporary family assured.

'We do give the puppies a lot of love and snuggles, just not on the couch,' Paige said. 'Every dog has their own personality. Delia's a lot like her mom. She likes to lie on her back and get her belly rubbed. She's sweet.'

Delia gets a great deal of puppy handling, Blaise added. This involves someone running their hands from her muzzle to the tip of her wagging tail and in between each claw of all four of her paws.

'This is used to calm the puppy down and as way to make sure the puppy is OK,' Blaise said as Delia fell asleep in her lap. 'We need to desensitize her to being touched and handled. We do this as many times as possible. You can see she loves the attention.'

Greater purpose

Peggy's family cherishes their 15 to 18 months with each puppy.

'I was 12 when we got our first one,' Blaise said. 'It was kind of overwhelming at first, but now everything comes naturally.

'If I couldn't see fully, I would really want a guide dog to help me out. They provide hope and independence.'

As a puppy trainer, you never lose sight of the purpose for everything you do, Paige added.

'Having a dog is different from a cane,' she said. 'A cane is an extension of your hand, while a dog is your sight as well as a companion.

'Working with these puppies really makes you think about not taking your senses for granted. It truly is a blessing to be able to see and take in all the details around you.'

While not all puppies will graduate from Guide Dogs for the Blind to serve alongside a blind person for up to eight years, they all are great dogs who find their way into the right home. Some go on to become search and rescue dogs, therapy dogs or beloved career-change pets like Alberta, who returned home with the Wittenauer-Lee family.

'Giving up the first one for me was the hardest,' said Peggy, whose oldest daughter Chloe first convinced her family to volunteer to raise a puppy for the organization.

Volunteering to foster and raise a second puppy helped.

'We get to see them graduate with their owner,' Blaise added. 'It is really cool to see your dog leading her new owner across the stage.

'It's really rewarding to think of all the good the dog is going to do. That's what makes it easier to handle the situation of them leaving.'

For now, the Cedar Mill family is cherishing every step along Delia's journey to become a guide dog.

Delia is already becoming a welcome visitor to Cedar Mill Community Library, Trader Joe's at Beaverton Town Square, Beaverton Fred Meyer, St. Pius X Church, Tanasbourne Starbucks and around the neighborhood.

'Mostly I feel I see the best in people when we are out,' Peggy said of the warm response Delia receives around town. 'There are a lot of dog lovers out there, who ask a lot of questions. We encourage questions.'

For more information about Guide Dogs for the Blind or to volunteer to raise a puppy for the organization, visit www.guidedogs.com .