Vicki the personality pup has moved in with the Orr family in Temple City, where they know she'll someday leave and go on to more important things and leave them heartbroken.
Even as they lavish gourmet food and constant attention on her, the Orrs are resigned to being left in the lurch when the little flirt takes up with someone else.
"We get weepy now, just thinking about it," said Pat Orr, who nonetheless is giving her heart, as well as her home, to the future guide dog.
Orr is a first-time foster mother of sorts for International Guiding Eyes Inc., and Vicki is one of the organization's pups who live for about a year with volunteers who acquaint them with life's realities: traffic, buses, supermarkets, doctors' offices, kids, cats, temptation, discipline and other dogs.
After growing up with the Orrs, Vicki will move to International Guiding Eyes' headquarters in Sylmar for several months of training to be a guide dog for a blind person who may also have other handicaps. When fully trained, Vicki and a prospective master or mistress will live together at the training center for a month; if they're well matched they will probably be together for up to 10 years.
Cindy Roberts, puppy supervisor for International Guiding Eyes, said the agency has about 100 pups in volunteer homes all over the country. The majority are in Southern California, although some are in Arizona and one is as far away as Maine. About 60% of the puppies eventually qualify as guide dogs. Of the 40% who don't make it, most will be rejected for having hip dysplasia, in which the hip joint weakens and causes lameness as the animal matures, a hereditary affliction that is fairly common among larger breeds of dogs. Most of the others failures will be "traffic deficient," Roberts said.
"I'll be just mortified if Vicki flunks," Orr said.
"What if I do something wrong? What if she darts out into a busy street? I'm responsible for an international organization's dog.
"We spoil our own dogs and we'd love to spoil Vicki, but she has a real importance. If she gets bad habits they'll have to work so much harder to train her."
The importance of being Vicki became evident soon after her arrival in Temple City last month, when she was 6 weeks old. Orr has already asked a market manager to allow Vicki in his store, "because once I saw a guide dog who was terrified of market baskets." She will take Vicki along when she goes to the dentist's office, "because that's a smell they don't like." She and her husband, Mike, have seats on the aisle for the San Gabriel Civic Light Opera series, "and we're arranging to bring Vicki."
Oblivious to her special treatment, Vicki is a long-legged, big-footed, 2-month-old clown, a baby yellow Labrador retriever who spends her days in Pat Orr's Needlepoint Gallery in Temple City and romps with the family teen-agers, Angie and Mindy, and the two family dogs.
Roberts said about 70% of International Guiding Eyes' dogs are Labrador retrievers and the others are golden retrievers and German shepherds, all chosen for their size and "because they're real people dogs with the best dispositions."
International Guiding Eyes is one of nine guide dog suppliers in the country and one of three in California. It is a non-profit agency financed by donations and all of its services, including the dogs, are free to the blind.
Most pups are donated by breeders and the supply never meets demand, Roberts said. International Guiding Eyes has a two-year waiting list of hundreds of legally blind people of all ages, and there are not enough families like the Orrs who meet the agency's requirements for providing discipline and care for the dogs. Owners must buy special food that is not available in supermarkets, and the agency pays for all veterinary and other expenses.
When it comes time for temporary owner and dog to part, Roberts said, "the dogs do pretty well but people have some difficulty."
Orr can't explain why she is willing to take the responsiblity and care of a dog that will never be her own, other than she wants to contribute to the humanitarian goals of the organization. And Vicki has proved to be an extra fringe benefit:
"She just has a real neat personality," said Orr, as if that explains everything.