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West Linn's Cindy Sullivan found a calling with Guide Dogs for the Blind

by: TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Cindy Sullivan sits outside her home with Donnie, left, and Broadway, right.  Cindy Sullivan, of West Linn, has spent enough time training guide dogs that she can instantly recognize a certain change that comes over them.

Often it is when the dogs are practicing traveling as a group, on the Max rail service for instance, and they can look around to see their companions nestled close to the feet of their owners, each dog wearing the exact same vest that reads “Guide Dogs for the Blind Puppy in Training,” which serves as a de facto work uniform.

They are training to be part of the Guide Dogs for the Blind program, and occupations don’t get much more serious for a canine.

“They kind of seem to learn and know they’re doing something different than other dogs,” Sullivan said. “And that’s not something you have to teach them.”

Since she started in 2006, Sullivan has trained a total of six dogs over time periods as short as two months and as long as 14 months. Guide Dogs for the Blind, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, provides guide dogs free of charge to legally blind applicants across the country, and banks heavily on the services of volunteers like Sullivan.

The dogs — most being either yellow or black Labrador retrievers — are bred at a central location in California, but that doesn’t mean they are born ready to guide. They are, as trainers like to say, just puppies — not guide dog puppies.

That’s where Sullivan and her fellow “puppy trainers” come in. As a member of Guide Dogs’ West Linn group, Sullivan raises puppies for up to 14 months before they move on to formal training at the Guide Dogs campus in Boring. If the dog passes through that rigorous training, a match is then made with a qualified legally blind applicant.

“It depends on the activity of the individual who receives the dog,” Sullivan said. “There’s so much thoughtfulness that goes into matching the dog with the person, because it depends on their lifestyle. If it’s an active person, then they want to have a dog who has the stamina to go out and keep up with them.”

by: TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Shown with puppy-in-training Broadway, West Linn's Cindy Sullivan helps train guide dogs for the blind.

As she spoke, Sullivan had a yellow companion named Broadway laying at her feet. At 11 months of age, Broadway was nearing the formal training stage — but this wasn’t her usual home. On this particular Monday, Sullivan was “puppy sitting” for one of her friends who had other obligations to fulfill. Though done mostly for practical reasons, the visit to Sullivan’s house also gave Broadway valuable experience in dealing with unfamiliar situations.

With her vest strapped on tightly, Broadway treated Sullivan’s kitchen table as if it were an office desk, resting quietly until it was time to move again. When the family cat stalked by to test her, Broadway lifted her head and strained her neck — but ultimately stayed quiet and out of trouble.

“This is a perfect instance of something she’s going to have to learn,” Sullivan said. “Not to chase a cat, and not to chase tennis balls and things like that.”

Broadway’s exhibition that day was particularly encouraging because guide dogs often accompany their partners to work, where they must be practically invisible. If it seems a rather joyless existence, Guide Dog volunteers point out that there is ample time for play at home. When the vest comes off, the dogs know they are off the clock and their watchful eyes can turn to games of fetch or tug of war.

It’s in those light moments, like when Broadway is turned loose and bounds through the Sullivan living room with the family dog, Donnie, that one might wonder how puppy trainers are able to give up the dogs when the time comes.

“There’s a percentage of you that doesn’t totally attach to the dog,” Sullivan said. “Because you know in the back of your mind that you’re going to be letting this dog go. It’s a labor of love, but it’s a gift ultimately, because you’re providing somebody with the freedom of mobility, and we all value our freedom.”

And the bond is never completely severed. The Boring campus provides online updates for families about what stage of training the dogs are in, and when they are matched with an applicant. Once training ends, there is a graduation ceremony on campus for the dogs and their new companions.

The puppy-raising families are invited too, of course, and the auditorium was packed last Saturday for the Boring campus’ 246th graduation.

by: TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Cindy Sullivan plays with Broadway outside.

“It takes a community to do this,” class supervisor Keith Laber said. “Without our puppy-raising program, we couldn’t do this.”

One by one, puppy raisers trotted the six graduating dogs onto the stage and passed them on to their new companions. It had been just two weeks since the program applicants had met their guide dogs on campus, but the signs of deep affection were already palpable. One dog, a black Lab named Gatsby, leapt and bounded across the stage when he saw his companion, James Maloney.

“You get to see how the dog has totally bonded with them,” Sullivan said. “When you are at the graduation, the dog remembers you, but you see that bond go to that person, and it makes it easier to let go.”

Of the six individuals who received a guide dog on that Saturday, Jessica Naert was the only one experiencing the feeling for the first time. A master’s degree student from Dallas, Texas, Naert remembered when she first met her black Lab, Makiko. The dog had put down her bone and immediately curled up around Naert. That was all it took to establish a bond.

“I gave up my spring break to get her,” Naert said. “And honestly, this is the best spring break I’ve ever had.”

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