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Eyes for the Blind

Area family and beneficiary talk about life with a guide dog.

For the 50th anniversary wedding picture of Margaret and Ken Frames, the two decided to take a picture of their family. That portrait would include Margaret's guide dog, a black Labrador named Luna, sitting between the couple.

"Labs are great at getting to know you," Margaret Frames said.

Luna is one of many area guide dogs trained by the New York-based Guiding Eyes for the Blind. In the Washington region, not only do citizens use guide dogs to help them get around, but local families and individuals also help socialize the guide dogs until they're matched to an owner.

The family that helped raise Luna happens to live in Vienna, and Luna visits the family regularly.

"They bond easily with new people, but they never forget who loved them before," said Karen Thompson, a member of the family that helped socialize Luna when she was a puppy.

The Thompsons discovered Guiding Eyes for the Blind in 1999, after Karen Thompson saw a picture in a newspaper of a trainer with a guide dog. She asked her son Christopher, who was then 12 or 13, if the family could participate in the program, since raising guide dogs is different from having a regular pet. While the family still gives the animal the same love and care, family members know they will have to part with their dog in a few months once the dog finds an owner who needs it.

Christopher agreed, and the family went through the interview and screening process. Ten weeks later, they received Luna, who was then 2 months old.

"Our responsibility is mainly socialization," said Rick Thompson, Karen's husband.

TO TRAIN LUNA to become a guide dog, Karen Thompson would take Luna on errands. In addition to attending weekly dog training classes, Luna would go to Fair Oaks Mall and ride on the elevator, or go to the grocery store in Oakton. She would also take daily mile-long walks with the Thompsons, and differentiate how grass, pavement and grates feel under her paws.

Throughout the training, the family and the dog trainers with Guiding Eyes for the Blind take note of whether the dogs can pass socialization milestones, like climbing up and down steps. If they pass, then they are closer to becoming guide dogs.

"These dogs have to have a great deal of confidence," said Karen Thompson.

Frames added, "They have to not be afraid to step out into traffic."

If the dogs don't pass the test, they can still work as search dogs with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Front Royal, or they can be adopted.

Luna stayed with the Thompsons for about 20 months, until Guiding Eyes for the Blind found an Ashburn woman who was visually impaired and needed a guide dog. That woman was Margaret Frames.

"Part of that is matching the personality of the dog with the student," said Rick Thompson.

ONCE THE MATCH was set up, both Frames and Luna went to New York for a month to learn about each other. Luna helped Frames navigate the bus system of Yorktown Heights, N.Y., where they were staying. They would go to restaurants together, and Luna would help Frames cross the street.

After Frames and Luna completed the training, Luna participated in a graduation ceremony with the other guide dogs, some of which would end up in far-flung places like California and Washington. The families that helped raise the guide dogs attended the ceremony as well.

"It's a great day," Frames said.

Since Luna was paired up with Frames, the Thompsons have raised two other guide dogs. One dog, Courtney, ended up with an owner in Spokane, Wash. Another one, Abner, was afraid to climb stairs, so he couldn't become a guide dog. The Thompsons adopted him instead.

Luna is the third guide dog Frames has had. After the first two retired, an Oakton couple adopted them. Frames visits them often.

"We go over and take Luna to visit, and we're good friends," Frames said.

Although the Thompsons have taken a break from raising guide dogs, they still baby-sit those dogs in training. About 25 families throughout the metropolitan area assist in training guide dogs. They stay connected with the families and the owners through newsletters and events like an annual dog swim in Leesburg.

"Once you do this, you're continually offered the opportunity to raise another puppy," said Rick Thompson.