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Guide dog trainers gain insight for the blind

Sandra Barton cries at least once a year.

Barton, a guide dog trainer in Federal Way, said she can’t help but cry when she gives a guide dog away at the end of its training to a blind person in need.

But still the rewards and the joys associated with training a puppy for the service keep her coming back. She’s trained 14 guide dogs over the years.

The dogs are most often golden retrievers, black or yellow labradors or German shepherds. Barton, 55, gets them when they are about eight weeks and raises them until they’re just more than a year old.

She potty trains them, teaches them basic commands and socializes them. Then they go off to a more specialized guide dog

training school for the blind.

While they are being trained, guide dogs are with their owners almost 24 hours a day. Barton brings her dogs to church, restaurants, the grocery store, the fair, basketball games, concerts, the park, the bank, the library, school — everywhere.

The only places guide dogs are not allowed are the zoo and the dentist, Barton said.

“They become your dog, your constant companion,” she said. “They like to be with you.”

Bringing the dogs along is essential for proper training.

“This is the most important thing as raisers we do is teach them to be socialized,” Barton said.

Trainers also teach the dogs to come, sit, stay, lay down and other basic commands. And they must teach them to behave. They stay off the furniture, don’t beg at the table and don’t chase squirrels.

They can’t chase anything, actually. Imagine a guide dog leading a blind person through a park and getting distracted by children playing ball — disaster, Barton said.

“This dog is going to go to a blind person, someone who will not see them when they are misbehaving. So you teach them to not misbehave,” she said. “This is basically a well-mannered, good citizen dog.”

Barton decided to start raising guide dogs when her oldest son, Christopher, was 12. The family wanted a dog and this was the best way, she thought.

“We wanted to teach them to give back, everything is not yours,” she said, adding that the boys learned responsibility and selflessness.

Guide dog puppies are perfect family dogs because they are naturally people pleasers and non-aggressive, Barton said. They are taught to obey anyone who is holding their leash, so training them is a family experience. It is also important the entire family agrees to enforce the dog’s rules.

For example, guide dog puppies are to never receive food from any source other than their dish. That is important because they will eventually be allowed in restaurants and grocery stores and they must behave, Barton said.

The only requirement for a guide dog raiser is that they are at least 9 years old and have enough strength to control the dog as it grows larger. Guide dogs get along well with other, non-aggresive animals. A safe outdoor area is required, although if there is no fence, a kennel may be provided.

After about 14 months, the dog heads off to school in Boring, Ore., or San Rafael, Calif.

Once the dog has graduated from training school, raisers are invited to a ceremony to meet the person who will own the dog and see the dog in action.

“It’s a real nice closer,” Barton said. “That’s usually when most of us cry.”

Contact Margo Horner: mhorner@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565.

Learn more

Training Paws for Guide Dogs, a Federal Way area volunteer guide dog puppy raising club, is seeking puppy raisers ages 9 and up. Club participants receive free twice-monthly dog obedience classes and frequent dog social outings.

For more information about adopting a guide dog, call Sandra Barton at (253) 931-8286.

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