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Harnessing potential

Whether it's tackling TriMet or mastering the mall, Guide Dog raisers using the local landscape to train their precocious puppies


TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Morton, an 11-month-old black Labrador guide dog, looks up at his trainer, Don Marshall of Beaverton, during a training exercise at Washington Square mall.When the bus pulled up outside of Washington Square mall on the evening of Feb. 23, the dozen passengers that got off weren’t there for the sales or the food court.

They were there to work.

The passengers, black and yellow Labrador retrievers, descended on the mall last week to get in some necessary training. It’s one of the many things they’ll have to do if they hope to become guide dogs with Guide Dogs for the Blind.

GDB, the nation’s largest school for service dogs for the visually impaired, has been providing guide dogs to people in need for more than 70 years. The organization operates a large campus in Boring, outside of Gresham.

On Feb. 23, the Beaverton-based Sightmasters puppy-raising club brought several of its dogs on a training exercise, catching a TriMet bus from Beaverton to Washington Square, then roaming the mall to practice their obedience.

“Blind and visually impaired people rely extensively on public transit,” said Joan Tharp, a GDB spokeswoman, “which means guide dogs need to know how to assist them safely on and off buses, trains, ferries and light rail.”

Charm school

Volunteer puppy raisers across the country take in dogs to train and prepare for lives working with the visually impaired.

“At this age, they’re still learning their manners,” Tharp said. “They have to know how to behave in public, how to pay attention and, for example, not pee in front of Macy’s.”

The puppy raisers take in the puppies, volunteering their time to train them in basic obedience and exposing them to experiences they’ll likely face as guide dogs.

“It’s all about dealing with distractions,” Tharp said. “We’re preparing them even before they go into formal training.”

For most of the young pups, this was their first time riding a TriMet bus and the first time to experience a large shopping mall such as Washington Square.

Buses have plenty of distracting sights and sounds, and a large mall offers plenty of distractions on its own, with its shining storefronts, curious passersby and plenty of hustle and bustle.

June Jensen of Tigard brought her black Labrador retriever, Rialta, on the trip.

“She’s my first puppy,” said Jensen, who became a volunteer puppy raiser 10 months ago. “I got her when she was 10 weeks old. This was our first trip on the bus, and she did really well. She’s a sweet girl.”

Jensen said she was drawn to GDB as a way of giving back.

“I’ve always wanted to do it,” she said.

Rialta is nearing the end of her obedience training. After that, the puppies graduate to formal training at the GDB campus in Boring, or are sent south to the organization’s headquarters in San Rafael, Calif.

“After that, they are matched with a person and then the pair goes through two weeks of training together,” Tharp said. “It’s a labor of love, but it’s worth it.”

Real-world experience

The Sightmasters puppy-raising club meets weekly at Merlo Station High School in Beaverton for training, but Jensen said that the real work comes when the puppies are out experiencing the world.

“We take the dogs pretty much everywhere,” she said.

Steve Mehlig of Beaverton has been raising guide dog puppies for years.

“We go to places like this, or The Home Depot, or any number of places,” he said. “We’ll go have lunch at the Lucky Lab. We try to get the dogs out as often as possible and socialize them.”

The puppies are learning all the time, he said.

“Every aspect of this is training,” Mehlig said, as the puppies took a break, waiting patiently with their trainers near the mall’s food court. “When a child walks by pulling a toy, or taking them to the food court, or even getting the dogs to just stand around and do nothing, it’s all training,”

Mehlig helps train other guide dog puppies and also fosters puppies in need of homes. He said Washington Square is a great place for training.

“I bet I’ve brought about 40 dogs through here,” he said.

Rebecca Lesley, a spokeswoman with Washington Square mall, said it’s not uncommon for local puppy raisers to stop by the mall.

“I see them all the time,” she said.

Mehlig is currently raising his 14th guide dog puppy. He said he can’t imagine doing anything else.

“It makes such a huge difference in people’s lives,” he said. “Plus, it’s really fun. The reality is, how many opportunities do you get to do something that is this much fun, that is also giving back in such a powerful way?”