Puppy starts training at Guide Dogs for the Blind
Paige the yellow lab goes to 'college' at Boring facility
For more than a year, King City resident Lou Travis has had a faithful companion by her side: her guide-puppy-in-training Paige.
Wherever Travis went - grocery stores, work, retail stores, church, restaurants - Paige, wearing her little green vest, accompanied her, learning how to follow commands and feel comfortable in any environment.
Travis had to follow a strict regimen with her, which was all part of the preparation for Paige being recalled to the Guide Dogs for the Blind Boring campus.
As part of the program, Travis belongs to the Beaverton-based Sightmasters Club for people raising guide dog puppies; the members support each other and learn from each other as well as trade puppy-sitting duties.
In April, when Paige, a yellow lab, turned 16 months old, the call came for her to report for duty in Boring, and Travis took her there April 21.
Once dogs are delivered to the Boring facility, they undergo a two-week-long physical assessment and evaluation before being spayed or neutered.
Then the dogs are ready to enter a training regimen that includes eight levels. Usually, dogs spend about one week at each level, but sometimes they take longer if an issue comes up that takes more time to correct.
"Paige was 'dog distracted,'" Travis said. "Every time she saw another dog, she would get excited, and seeing-eye dogs must not be distracted by anything."
Travis is able to check Paige's status through weekly updates on the organization's website, and if a dog's name disappears from the list, the puppy-raiser can ask the club leader to find out why.
If for some reason, a dog cannot complete all the training levels, he or she is "career-changed" out of the program; only 55 percent of incoming puppies end up graduating, and the puppy-raisers are first to be offered the dogs if they leave the program.
While dogs are undergoing their training, the match-up process with a blind person - called the handler - starts. People from all over the U.S. and Canada apply, and part of the acceptance process is for them and their home to be evaluated in person by a representative from Guide Dogs for the Blind.
Once accepted, they are put on a waiting list until they are matched with a dog and flown to the San Rafael, Calif., or Boring campus to start two weeks of training with their dogs.
"The biggest part is learning trust between the handler and the dog," Travis said, and the training includes real-world experiences where the handlers and dogs navigate around Gresham and downtown Portland.
Finally, if all goes well, it is time for the graduation ceremony. The puppy-raisers are invited to the campus to see their dogs one more time and meet the handlers.
One by one, each pair is introduced on the stage, and the puppy-raiser hands the dog over to the handler, usually telling a cute story about raising the dog.
"Everybody gets together and talks, and they often go out to dinner together," Travis said. "The majority of handlers stay in touch with the puppy-raisers."
Being a guide dog is stressful for the animals, and they usually work for six or seven years; then, if the handlers want to keep the dogs as pets, they do, or they can pass the dog on to someone in their family.
If that doesn't work out, the puppy-raisers are asked if they want to take the dog back; otherwise, there is a two-year waiting list to adopt one of these mellow, well-trained dogs, and they often become comfort or therapy dogs.
"Once they retire, these dogs have to be re-trained to be a dog," Travis said. "They need to learn that it's OK to chase balls and Frisbees and go swimming."
Right now, Travis is missing Paige while checking her status on the Guide Dogs website each week.
"Steve in our Sightmasters group told me, 'The first dog is always the hardest - both the training and emotionally,'" Travis said. "Nancy, our leader, is now raising her 25th or 26th puppy."
Cuddling with Paige on the morning she was leaving, Travis said, "It was bittersweet. She is such a lovable, affectionate little girl. Whoever gets her is going to get a little sweetheart."
Travis' friend Chris Casebeer drove her and Paige to Boring to turn over the dog, taking the longest and slowest route possible.
"The look on Paiges face as I walked away and turned to look at her one last time said, 'Mom, Mom! Don't leave me!'" Travis said. "I hated leaving her there.
"If I get the call that Paige has to drop out of the program, I will drop everything and go get my girl. I keep a leash in my car, and I still have her little bed in my room."
In the meantime, Travis is puppy-sitting for other dogs in her training group, and if she learns that Paige is near the end of the eight levels of training and is likely to be assigned to a handler, she plans to sign up for another puppy.
"It takes a lot of patience and dedication and work to raise a guide-dog puppy," she said. "But it is so worth it knowing you are improving someone's life so they can be mobile and independent."
For more information, call 800-295-4050 or visit www.guidedogs.com.