Jeff Long’s appearance must have startled Pearl, a 48-pound black goldador, as he stood dressed in full firefighter gear, sounding like an alien from a 1950s space movie as he inhaled and exhaled.
As Long approached the 14-month-old dog, she jumped back, then stood firm and stared at the unusual creature before her as she waited for his next move. Recognizing her puppy’s inhibitions, Joyce Wells stepped in.
“Look, Pearl,” said Wells, referring to Long, a Pineville Fire Department captain. “This is my best friend; you just didn’t know it.”
Pearl was one of seven guide dog puppies that visited the Pineville fire and police stations on Feb. 21, one of several field trips raisers take the dogs on to acclimate them to unusual settings.
Visits to police and fire departments let the dogs mingle with emergency personnel in non-emergency settings; this way, the dogs are less likely to get spooked when they encounter high-pressure situations. The canines are exposed to the blaring sounds of sirens, and to police officers and firefighters in their uniforms and as they use equipment.
The dogs belong to Southeastern Guide Dogs Inc., a Florida-based nonprofit that trains guide dogs with the help of volunteer groups around the country. Wells is the area coordinator for the group informally named the Charlotte/Albemarle Puppy Raisers of North Carolina.
The group holds monthly meetings at Quail Hollow Presbyterian Church, where puppy raiser Sue Hawkins is a member.
Hawkins has raised seven puppies over the last 10 years. The most recent one is a goldador, a half-retriever/half-Labrador breed, named Marcia. She is a “career-change” dog, which means she did not graduate to the status of guide dog. Instead, Marcia’s skills are used in pet therapy, meaning she makes regular visits to the Ronald McDonald House and rehab centers.
Raisers receive their puppies when they are between 8 to 12 weeks old. They house train the puppies and teach them basic skills, such as sitting and heeling.
After a year, the raisers return them to Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto, Fla. The exchange is often emotional for the raisers, who get attached to their puppies.
Wells arranges field trips for raisers and their dogs about twice a month. The group visits an array of locations including museums, malls and parks, and exposes the canines to various modes of transportation, such as buses and trains.
Police officer Mike Ercolino, an 11-year Pineville veteran, met with the dogs on foot, on bicycle, with a four-wheeler and in a department SUV during the recent Pineville field trip. The guide dogs’ responses covered a range of comfort levels as they interacted with Ercolino and several firefighters.
Sammy, a 7-month old goldador raised by Fort Mill, S.C., resident Christine Raszeja, appeared to be carefree in every situation he encountered. Sammy often greeted his special presenters by laying still or playfully rolling on the ground.
“When we go someplace, he just kind of lays down,” said Raszeja. “I don’t know if he just gets comfortable or it’s overwhelming. He gets more worked up (being) with the dogs because it’s a playtime thing.”
Happy, a 1-year old golden retriever raised by Jennifer Sacchitella of New London, seemed agitated initially when Ercolino approached on his bicycle.But Happy grew warmer each time Ercolino passed. Sacchitella rewarded the pooch with kibble.
This weekend, Wells was scheduled to return Pearl to the Southeastern Guide Dogs campus. Though Wells describes Pearl as having some “distractions,” she feels her puppy is ready to take the next step.
“It’s hard to say goodbye to them,” says Wells, who lives in Stanly County. “I get tears in my eyes. But I will start over again (with another puppy), and I know somebody’s going to get a great dog.”
Joe Habina is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Joe? Email him at email@example.com.