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Security is four legs and a wet nose

By ELIZABETH CIEPIELA

Staff writer

They are more than companions and more than man’s best friend.

They wear green slipover jackets that read, “Stop. Please ask before petting.”

They’re worth about $60,000 after they have graduated training.

They’re guide dogs. And the independence, comfort and safety they provide to their visually impaired owners make them priceless.

Earlier this month, a group of young black labradors, one golden retriever and their human trainers met at the Federal Way school district’s bus garage. The dogs’ mission: To learn how to guide their owners on and off a school bus.

Some dogs did better than others. One black lab walked off the bus backwards.

“I like dogs. I like animals. My mom took me (to a guide dog trainers’ meeting) and I got into it,” 11-year old Kara Singer of Auburn said. Her dog, Lancaster, is a 1-year-old black lab.

Jennifer Mugler, 15, of Auburn began training guide dogs six years ago. She wanted to get one, but her family’s landlord said a dog is only allowed if she had a good reason. Mugler had one. She decided to adopt a puppy and train it to be a guide dog for the blind.

Panache, an 11-week-old female black lab, is the fifth dog Mugler has trained. At its tender age, Panache is already housebroken and remains calm around the sound of a bus horn. But because she’s so small and hasn’t yet received all her shots, Mugler carries Panache in her arms and seats the puppy in her lap.

The bus etiquette session was led by Gail Baker, a transportation assistant for Federal Way Public Schools. Baker volunteers as a puppy trainer for Training Paws, a local 4-H group that trains puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind, a non-profit, California-based organization. Baker’s been involved with Training Paws for nine years and has raised as many puppies.

“Unconditional love is how we train our dogs,” Baker said. “They’ll love anyone who loves them. Once the dogs bond with somebody, they’re (that person’s) for life.”

Guide Dogs for the Blind loans young puppies to Training Paws volunteers They teach the puppies basic skills and socialization. Spokeswoman Jennifer Metzger said 132 of the organization’s trained dogs work with visually impaired people in Washington.

Often, raising and training the puppy is a shared family effort. The dogs go everywhere — to the supermarket, to restaurants, to a movie theater –– with their trainers.

The most common breeds used as guide dogs are labradors, golden retrievers and German shepherds. The dogs are bred and chosen for their temperament, size and easy grooming.

Baker said most local businesses welcome the dogs. She said it hasn’t always been that way. Acceptance of the dogs has taken nine years of educating the public. Now, supermarket employees are disappointed if they see Baker shopping without her puppy-in-training.

Trainers meet the first and third Tuesday of each month to practice sits, stays, comes, guiding humans and proper grooming.

The puppies are returned to Guide Dogs for the Blind when they are 15 to 16 months old. The next step is to get them acquainted with their future owners, who are blind. Guide Dogs for the Blind pays all expenses while the new owners stay on the organization’s campus for a month, bonding and learning to work with the dogs.

After that period, the dogs and their new owners attend a graduation ceremony — complete with cap, gown and diploma.

“Every time you go down to a graduation and hear a speech, people talk about how much more independence they have, how much more comfortable and safe they are,” Baker said.

Staff writer Elizabeth Ciepiela: 925-5565, eciepiela@fedwaymirror.com

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