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Dog lovers volunteer to train guide puppies

Puppy pals - Before being shipped off to Guide Dogs for the Blind campuses in Oregon or California, many puppies-in-training spend a year with local volunteers, who form bonds and then must let go
by: Chase Allgood, Dog training volunteers Kristin Tarnowski of Forest Grove (with Dewitt), Shelley McGee of Banks (with Babe) and Ellie Schnorr of Forest Grove (with Bevan) get some puppy love. All three are part of a puppy training program sponsored by Guide Dogs for the Blind, which has campuses in Oregon and California.

Helen Keller, who was both blind and deaf, said of one of her guide dogs, 'If ever there was an angel in fur, it was Kamikaze. I know I shall never feel quite the same tenderness for any other pet.'

Keller did go on to have other guide dogs, loving and depending on each one. Today, puppies continue to be trained as guide dogs, some right here in Forest Grove.

Guide Dogs for the Blind has campuses in San Rafael, Calif., and Boring, Ore. But before they can be sent to either campus for their special training, puppies must spend the first year of their lives in the homes of volunteers throughout the western part of the United States.

One reason puppies are placed with individuals and families is to socialize them. That means taking the dog to work or doing errands.

'The leash becomes an extension of your arm,' says Shelley McGee of Banks, who's raising 11-month-old Babe, a yellow Labrador Retriever.

McGee, along with Kristin Tarnowski and Ellie Schnorr, both of Forest Grove, sat down recently at Tarnowski's home to talk about their experience raising puppies. Schnorr, 10, and her family are co-raising 14-month-old Bevan, a black lab, with Emilee Hinton, 18, who works at Companion Pet Clinic in Forest Grove during the day.

Bevan lay sprawled on the floor, sleeping soundly.

Tarnowski raised her first dog for her senior project at Forest Grove High School in 2000-01. Then it was off to college for the Forest Grove Montessori teacher. Once she graduated, she decided to get another puppy.

Right now she's raising her fourth dog, Dewitt, just 13 weeks old. All three dogs in the room were mellow, with Bevan taking the prize. It took a couple of commands before Bevan decided to interrupt his nap and rise to a sitting position for a photo shoot.

The dogs are bred on the California campus before being placed with families or individuals in western states.

'We keep them until they're between 13 and 15 months old,' Tarnowski said. Then the dogs go to the campus in Boring where they receive further training and are eventually placed with a partner who pays nothing for the dog.

'Some dogs are trained to help people who are blind; others are trained to help people with diabetes or epilepsy, sensing when insulin levels are low or a seizure is about to begin.'

Still others work in law enforcement. Aztec, a dog Tarknowski raised, is at work at a prison in Oregon, sniffing out illegal drugs.

McGee's interest in dogs led her to think about guide dogs. 'I thought it would be so awesome to help someone by raising a puppy,' she recalled.

She did some research on the Internet, found www.guidedogs.com and contacted Tarnowski who organized the guide dog club in Forest Grove.

The only requirements for volunteers are that they love dogs, are at least nine years old and can provide the dog with food and basic care. Guide Dogs pays for veterinary care.

Even kenneling a dog is not a problem. 'We have puppy sitters,' Tarnowski noted.

McGee began by attending a meeting of Guide Dog volunteers in Forest Grove. She learned she'd be taught how to teach basic obedience to any puppy placed with her.

She was at a Portland Beavers game when she was asked, along with other volunteers, to come onto the field. She was surprised when she was presented with Babe at the game.

The training both puppy and volunteer receive is ongoing. 'There's a lot of support,' McGee noted. 'I started out puppy sitting, watched videos and came to classes.'

The attention McGee gets when she's out with Babe is another plus for Babe's eventual partner. 'People who get these dogs can be isolated sometimes,' McGee noted. 'Having the dog creates opportunities for engaging with people.

'Dogs are so approachable. They really expand their owners' lives.'

Tarnowski even takes Dewitt to her parents' farm outside Gaston, where the little fur ball plays with Calvin, a lamb who, she says, 'thinks he's a dog.' But that, she noted, is another story.

When McGee takes Babe shopping with her, people see the Guide Dog Puppy in Training vest and ask McGee questions. The most common is, 'How can you give the dog up?' McGee can't speak out of her own experience yet.

Tarnowski can. 'It's sad,' she said. 'I keep focused on the goal. Once you've seen a dog placed with a blind partner ...'

She hesitates before continuing her sentence. 'There really are no words to describe it.'