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Charlotte teens raise, train, then give up guide dogs for blind

By Reid Creager

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The siren screamed and lights flashed on the parked police car as the teenagers walked their dogs around the vehicle several times. Like a round of doggie musical chairs, the pups stepped haltingly, expectantly – but quietly, obediently.

The challenging drill at the Pineville police station left their handlers pleased, proud and praising their pooches. There will be much more of that feeling as these “puppy raiser” volunteers prepare the pets for a life of service: The pups will become companions for visually impaired people through the group Southeastern Guide Dogs.

Maria Nielsen was one of the dozen or so who got out of a warm bed on a recent cold, drizzly Saturday morning to subject themselves and their dogs to the exercises. As bystanders fixated on the puppies’ irresistible faces, Nielsen, a homeschooled 14-year-old, talked about the people who will benefit most from them.

“I know two blind people in Columbia,” she said. “There’s this one lady, she likes to go hiking. She’s an outdoors person. Without a dog she can’t really do that.

“So she has her dog that takes her hiking or wherever she wants to go. They don’t have to sit in their house all day, and they also get a little friend for when things get tough.”

Maria said she’s been working with her dog, Junee, for about two months. The black Labrador retriever, her second as a puppy raiser, is no less a commitment than the first – a substantial investment of time, energy and love.

Serious responsibility

Raisers care for and train the 9- to 11-week-old dogs for 12 to 16 months at the raisers’ homes. They attend twice-a-month meetings, “exposures” (such as Saturday’s) or obedience sessions, and follow the strict guidelines of a 100-plus-page puppy training manual. And they act as educators/ambassadors for Palmetto, Fla.-based Southeastern Guide Dogs to the public. (If a puppy raiser is younger than 18, the dog is the legal responsibility of the parent or guardian.) At the end of the training period, raisers return the dogs to Southeastern for formal harness training.

Food and travel expenses are the primary expenses for volunteers; the program pays for vet bills and heartworm prevention. The human cost is in time, patience and training.

“We go over lots of obedience commands at home,” Maria said. “I take her to the store, and she goes everywhere with me. It’s important for her socialization.

“The family helps a little bit, too. My mom takes her everywhere. She’s my secretary and chauffeur.”

Quinn Schneider, 14, also shares his duties – primarily with 12-year-old brother Ethan. When they took on their first future guide dog, black Labrador Kajsa (which means “blessed” in Swedish), they learned quickly that it’s a different pet-raising experience.

“We have to make sure she’s not barking or whining,” said Quinn, who goes to Woodlawn School in Davidson. “So when she’s home, if she starts barking, we have to tell her ‘no noise.’ ... Out in public, we have to socialize her a lot and take her out to all the places we go so that she can have the experiences and know what to do when she’s in a new situation and not be surprised by anything.”

The boys and other raisers have noticed an obvious transformation when their dog is wearing its training “cape,” which must be on at all times in public. It’s similar to the change in demeanor and behavior that a person might experience when he or she puts on a uniform.

“When we’re at home and she doesn’t have the cape on and is interacting with the other dogs we have, she’s all crazy and running around and jumping,” Quinn said. “But then when it’s time to go to work and we put the cape on her, she settles right down and is just ready to work.”

The teens appreciate the level of discipline that’s a hallmark of the training. Jessica Fish, a 17-year-old junior at Northwest School of the Arts who’s raising a black Lab named Sukey, noted, “We’re not supposed to treat-train them” when the dogs obey a command.

“We say ‘good girl’ or praise her. It’s based on positive reinforcement, not negative reinforcement.”

Painful goodbyes

Even with all of the hard work and responsibility, some raisers say the hardest part of the job is returning the pet to Southeastern Guide Dogs when the organization deems training to be complete.

Molly Werder, 16, has had her Labrador-golden retriever mix named Inspire for a year; she and her twin, Sam, have grown accustomed to the dog going everywhere with them.

“We’re just about done with her, and it’s the first one we’ll be giving up,” said Molly, a Myers Park High junior.

“It’ll be sad, but I know that she’s going to help somebody. You get letters every once in awhile about how they’re doing,” and volunteers are invited to a Puppy Raiser Day in which they can meet the dog’s new owner.

She’s seen evidence that the heartache is worthwhile: “My mom works with a man who has a fully trained one. Watching him is so great, because they help him so much.”

Maria Nielsen agrees that giving up the dog is hard, “but just the feeling of independence you can give somebody is so awesome.”

Many get over their dog withdrawal pains by taking on another puppy. Though she’s only 23, Southeastern Charlotte-area coordinator Rebecca Hall has been a puppy raiser six times over 10 years.

“You know that they’re not yours to begin with, and you know they have a higher calling – that they need to help someone else. ... When you see your bouncy, crazy puppy turn into a competent guide dog leading someone else, it’s all worth it.”

Hall is impressed with the kids’ devotion to the program, which in some cases includes fundraising. The Schneider boys are raising money in hopes of being able to sponsor and name a dog, which costs $3,500, Hall said. Sponsoring and fundraising events help pay for the dogs’ medical bills.

Overall, “it’s a really good experience,” Ethan Schneider said. “It’s really good, helping out people who don’t have the eyesight or can’t do what you can do.”

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