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Four Paws, Two Eyes

Burke resident raises guide dog puppies for visually impaired.

Golden retriever Mr. Jake has a way of turning heads. No matter where owner Melissa Harrington takes the 5-month-old puppy, she said, she receives compliments on his looks and good behavior.

"My husband is never so popular as when he takes [Mr. Jake] into the office," she said. But the dog also inspires questions, too, such as "What does his vest mean?" or "What is a dog doing in the mall?"

Mr. Jake is Harrington’s fourth guide dog in training, so the Burke resident has become somewhat of an expert at answering these questions. The fluorescent-yellow vest in question bears the words "Future Guide Dog" on it, and because Mr. Jake is a service dog in training, he can access public places like the mall the same way fully certified service dogs do, she said.

Harrington and her family — three daughters and a husband — began raising guide dogs when they moved to Burke from San Diego in 2002. Harrington, who was staying at home with infant daughter Cassie, heard about the New York-based Guide Dog Foundation, Inc. and decided to become involved.

The Guide Dog Foundation, founded in 1946 as Guiding Eyes, Inc., is one of about 10 schools nationwide that breeds and trains guide dogs, and matches the dogs with visually impaired clients, or graduates. The Guide Dog Foundation provides the dogs free of charge to the graduates, and also works to increase awareness nationwide about visual impairment and disability rights.

THE WORK of "puppy walkers," as preliminary dog raisers such as Harrington are called, is integral to the Guide Dog Foundation’s mission, said Bruce Benzler, program services director for the Guide Dog Foundation.

"It's a real asset and a real value to have puppy walkers doing such a generous job for us in training these puppies," he said. A guide dog puppy typically stays with a family for about a year, he said, at which point it returns to New York for a full medical evaluation and placement in the guide dog training program.

Training and raising costs are covered by individual and corporate sponsors, said Ann Middleton, a D.C.-area liaison for the Guide Dog Foundation.

About 50 percent of dogs who enter the training program graduate as fully certified guide animals, said Benzler, about 100 dogs per year. The dogs that do not graduate may go into other programs such as alcohol, tobacco and firearms detectors or service dogs for persons with non-visual disabilities.

Guide dogs are bred for good temperament and intelligence, he said, but need a good home early on to become ideal workers. The purpose of having a regular citizen raise the dog in its first year of life is to give the dog experience with real homes and real people.

"You cannot have a guide dog just brought up in a kennel until it is ready to start training," he said.

GUIDE DOG puppies need to be cared for, exercised and well taken care of, said Harrington, but they also need to be exposed to as many new situations as possible. According to Middleton, these situations can be anything, from a crowded Metro platforms to a fireworks show to a doctor’s office.

"You can take them anywhere they would normally go as a guide dog," said Middleton.

With Mr. Jake, said Harrington, the jacket went on as soon as soon he was 9 weeks old so that he could become accustomed to it. He has had office experience from going to work with Harrington’s husband, and has visited a preschool as well.

Mr. Jake is an extraordinarily calm and well-behaved dog, said Harrington. He still jumps in excitement when guests come over, and occasionally sneaks a chew on the end of his leash, but the qualities of friendliness and obedience that prevail in Mr. Jake will serve him well in his career, she said.

The lessons a puppy walker teaches in a dog's first few months provide the foundation for later training, such as becoming housebroken, learning to sit and stay, and remaining calm in all situations, she said.

"The biggest thing to teach them is not to greet everyone," she said. "When the jacket is on and they are working, they can't do that." This is not as hard as it seems, she said, as most dogs pick up on the work-play balance instinctually.

Middleton, who raised five guide dog puppies herself, agreed. The dogs are on their best behavior when they are wearing the vest in public, she said, but when the vest is off they are back to acting like puppies.

Bringing up four guide dogs has also given Harrington and her family the experience to answer the hardest question of all: "How do you ever let them go?"

It is hard for a family to say goodbye to a dog it has raised for a year or more, said Harrington, but the benefits far outweigh the negatives. Raising a guide dog brings the family together knowing that they are doing something important for someone else. Harrington's two high-school and college-age daughters gained valuable volunteer experience raising the puppies, said Harrington.

"It's a lot more fun and easy than people think," she said. "My husband and I look at each other and think, 'This is so fun.' I can't believe everyone wouldn’t want to do this."