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Sight for the Sightless : Trainers Raise Puppies to Become Guides for the Blind

December 29, 1988|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

Pat Orr was setting herself up for another heartbreak as she looked adoringly into her Labrador retriever's eyes and stroked the sleek, black coat.

Robby is the fifth puppy that Orr has taken into her Temple City home to raise until it is old enough to be trained as a guide dog.

"They're more than your pet," she said. "They're your shadow and you feel the loss more when you give them up."

However, she keeps getting the pups from International Guiding Eyes in Sylmar, where they are bred for their qualities as guide dogs. She raises each pup until it is about 15 months old and then returns it to the agency for training.

Each dog is eventually teamed with a blind person, and after a month of training together they graduate and begin a partnership that usually lasts as long as either of them lives.

Jane Brackman, spokeswoman for International Guiding Eyes, said the training program usually takes about six months and each dog learns about 20 commands. The blind owners receive the dog and the training free, "since few could afford the $10,000 it costs for each dog and person team," she said.

International Guiding Eyes is financed by gifts and grants and it graduates around 50 "teams"--dogs and new owners--every year.

"The better I do my job, the less work they (International Guiding Eyes) have to do," Orr said to explain her role in making the partnership a successful one.

Since she began in January of 1986 with Vicki, her first puppy-in-training, Orr has taken her dogs everywhere she can to get them acquainted with the hazards they will face in their life's work.

She exposes them to traffic, airports, plane rides and other animals, as well as supermarkets, the dentist's office, theaters and children.

When a pup becomes distressed over a noise--as one did with a clanking manhole cover--Orr returns to the scene until the sound becomes familiar and less frightening.

"It's wonderful to get a nice dog back from Pat," said Brackman. International Guiding Eyes is one of three guide dog training centers in California and one of 10 in the nation.

"We turn a shy, suspicious pup over to her, and we get back a socialized dog that is ready for training. That's the most important thing," Brackman said.

Orr is a rarity for the agency, raising five dogs in less than two years, Brackman said. Several families in the Pasadena and Pomona areas have raised three or four pups but none have raised as many as Orr in less than two years.

Vicki, a golden Labrador retriever, went through her guide dog training with unusual speed because of Orr's care, Brackman said. She was teamed in April, 1987, with Frances Sposeto of Grass Valley, who calls her "the smartest dog in the world."

"I really lucked out, having Pat Orr as the puppy-raiser," Sposeto said from her home in the Sierra foothills, northeast of Sacramento.

Blind for 30 years because of an eye disease, Sposeto said she had never wanted a pet and had never even used a white cane and had been dependent on family and friends.

"But the feeling of having the dog and going where you want and at the pace you want . . . Vicki has gone with me on planes, trains, into Nevada casinos, skiing in Colorado," Sposeto said. "You can tell she was raised with love."

Treated 'Like Gold'

Orr said: "It tore me apart to give Vicki up, but I knew I had accomplished something (by raising her). All you have to do is go to one graduation and you know you want to raise 10,000. Suddenly these blind people are out among the living, and they treat their dogs like they're gold."

To ease the pain of relinquishing Vicki, Orr immediately got Morgan and then Carly, Paige and Robby, all Labrador retrievers. Carly has hip dysplasia, a common ailment that disqualifies about 40% of potential guide dogs. So Orr chose to keep Carly, along with her longtime pet shepherd, Heidi.

An employee in the public relations office at Caltech, Orr said she usually goes home for lunch just to check on her pets and exercise them.

"Every Memorial Day weekend I take my dogs to the Highland Games in Costa Mesa," she said of the annual Scottish ritual of games and entertainment. "I figure if they can get used to bagpipes, they can get used to anything.

"This is more than a hobby," she said. "It's really an avocation."

Orr said that while she is tempted to spoil a lovable pup--such as allowing it to sleep on her bed--she knows she must discipline it for a higher purpose.

"They have such important work to do," she said. "If a pup gets bad habits, when they go into training people have to work so much harder to correct them."

Her antique-furnished home shows no signs of abuse by the three dogs she has now, Carly, Robby and Heidi. They sit quietly when and where she tells them, and they greeted a visitor with well-behaved enthusiasm.

Among those who raise the pups for International Guiding Eyes, no one is paid for raising the pups and the raisers all spend an average of $150 a year for special food. Orr explains her interest simply as having a lifelong love for animals.

Diane Lang of Altadena has her fourth puppy-in-training. "It's more satisfying than having a pet," she said. "I love dogs so much, and now I can really accomplish something with that love."

Ann Curry heads a group of puppy raisers in the Pomona area who meet monthly to share training problems and ideas. "There's something in volunteer people that makes them want to give, and these puppy raisers are always looking for more ways to give. When I can combine that with animals, I'm in heaven," Curry said.

Acknowledging her weepiness at the graduations, Orr said, "When I return them for training I feel like I've done something worthwhile.

"And then I worry that maybe there was something more I could have done."

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