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Training dogs for the blind



Published: Sun, February 3, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Only four out of 10 puppies entering the programwill meet the stringent requirements at the end.

By STEPHEN SIFF

VINDICATOR TRUMBULL STAFF

CHAMPION -- It seemed like Ariel was only just housebroken when higher education called.

At the end of a tearful drive to Columbus, the dog's family was greeted out front while Ariel was whisked on her lease through a back door.

Then nothing, until the graduation photo came in the mail.

Ariel, a golden retriever, stood tall and grinning, next to his new owner, a pretty woman with long, curly blond hair, mirrored sunglasses and a smile.

There is a definite resemblance.

"It seems to work out that way," said Debbie Pierson, adviser to Pilot Puppy Partners, a Trumbull County 4-H Club that raises guide dogs for the blind.

"Ariel was wonderful," she said.

How it's going: Since 1998, four children have joined the club and adopted purebred puppies from Pilot Dogs Inc., of Columbus, under the stipulation they give them back in a year.

The youngsters are expected to teach the dogs basic commands and show them how to resist hopping on furniture and eating food off the table.

Then they send them on for four or five months of training at Pilot Dogs.

In most cases, they never see the dog again.

"It is like being an organ donor," said Lynne Almasy of Hubbard. Her 11-year-old son, Sean Offerdahl, is raising a standard poodle through the program.

"It'll probably be pretty hard, but its OK just because it will be helping somebody," Sean said.

About the group: Pilot Dogs, a 51-year-old nonprofit organization, turns out about 165 guide dogs each year at no cost to the people who rely on them, said Laura Schott, director of the puppy program.

Supported by Lions Club and private donations, the organization trains dogs and their new masters for four to five months before sending them out on their own.

Only four out of 10 puppies who enter the program make the cut, she said.

"We are looking for the exceptional dog," she said. "Perfect health, perfect temperament, perfect size."

Sable, one of the three dogs already raised by Pierson's family, was not so perfect.

"She was too nippy," said Megan, 10, who is now working on the family's fourth.

The 4-H group meets at least once a month for the dogs and children to socialize. Some children choose to enter various canine categories at the Trumbull County Fair.

That aspect of the program is not emphasized, Pierson said.

"I always say we do pilot dogs for blind people, not competition," she said.

siff@vindy.com




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