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A four-legged field trip

Charter school students leave home to learn about guide dog training


For the past three years, 12-year-old Aly Mindiola of Gresham has had dogs on her mind. OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Aly Mindiola gets a kiss from a guide dog-in-training Wednesday at the Guide Dogs for the Blind school in Boring. There are about 80 dogs training at the campus at any one time.

She’s been reading books about dogs. She’s been dreaming of the day when she can start a dog rescue organization. And on Wednesday, March 30, Aly had a chance to rub elbows — or paws, perhaps — with the people who best understand the special role a dog can play in a person’s health, happiness and independence as part of a field trip to Guide Dogs for the Blind in Boring.

“I liked seeing the behind-the-scenes part,” Aly said after the event.OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Dogs can be found anywhere at Guide Dogs for the Blind. Here, a pair of Labrador retrievers lounge underneath the reception desk at the schools veterinary clinic.

Aly and her father, Eric, were among the 40 students and parents from the online public charter school Oregon Connections Academy who toured the 20-acre campus at 32901 S.E. Kelso Road. The visitors got to see guide dogs in all stages of their education.

That was definitely a highlight for Gresham resident Lidiya Ponce, and her 7-year-old daughter, April.

They often catch a glimpse of guide dogs working with their trainers in downtown Gresham, learning how to stop at curbs for passing traffic and remain focused on their handler in busy situations.

Those encounters have led mom and daughter to wonder exactly how the process of becoming a guide dog works.

“We’ve seen them out practicing,” Lidiya said. “It’s amazing, how a dog can guide somebody.”

Kicking off the tour was a short presentation by instructor Nancy Denier and Todd, a yellow labrador nearing the end of his training.

Denier shared how the nonprofit organization relies on volunteer puppy raisers to help socialize and perform basic obedience with the pups off-campus for about a year.

After that, the dogs come to the campus for more intensive work. Instructors train with their dogs Monday through Friday to prepare them for the complicated and important tasks they must ultimately perform.

Fortunately, Denier noted, guide dog instructors have a slight edge when it comes to getting what they want from their pupils: They work with Labrador and golden retrievers, which are highly food-motivated breeds.

“Labs are walking stomachs,” she said, a comment that brought out a knowing laugh from students and parents.

About 80 would-be service dogs are on the campus at any time, but not all are eventually tapped to become an official guide dog. The dogs must pass a final exam, which includes guiding a blindfolded instructor through downtown Portland.

“These dogs have been trained to react in a situation that might be a little unsafe,” Denier noted.OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Mary Massey, a sixth grade teacher at Oregon Connections Academy, speaks during a school field trip to Guide Dogs for the Blind in Boring. She said the field trip gave students of the virtual school a chance to extend their learning.    Lidiya Ponce (left) and her daughter April, 7, greet one of the Labrador retrievers in training at Guide Dogs for the Blind in Boring. The organizations other facility is in San Rafael, Calif.

If it’s determined they don’t quite fit the organization’s needs — about half of the dogs make it — the dogs are “career-changed,” meaning they will be fitted with another service organization, a search-and-rescue group or even adopted by a family that has no guide dog needs.

After passing their final test, a dog is ready to be paired with a human partner. The duo trains together for two weeks on the Boring campus. The organization graduates six dogs every two weeks. The public is welcome to attend those ceremonies.

As part of Wednesday’s field trip, students also made their way to the campus’ climate controlled kennel, medical center and dog bathing rooms. Visitors also had a chance to view the dormitory where the two-legged students stay during the two weeks they train with their future guide dogs.

The kitchen area — with its counter stacked tall with stainless steel dog bowls and supply room piled high with kibble - drew a chorus of oohs and aahs as the visitors tried to imagine what it would be like to feed 80 hungry retrievers all at once.

The answer, it turns out, is noisy.

“They all seem to know what time feeding time is,” said Ron Haney, a technician who led that portion of the tour. “It gets a little boisterous around 4, 4:15.”

ORCA has more than 4,000 students in grades K-12 enrolled throughout the state. The school arranges field trips to give the students a chance to connect in the non-virtual world.

“The socialization is very important for the children, and it extends their learning.” said Mary Massey, a sixth-grade teacher who organized Wednesday’s excursion. “This gives them that field knowledge.”

Aly believes it is knowledge she can use someday.

Her favorite part of the tour was seeing the facility’s veterinary clinic. And of course, she liked having a chance to pet the pups, when they weren’t being trained.

“It was really cool,” she said.


ekellar@sandypost.com

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