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Area teens training guide dogs for service

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Oakdale youths serving as official puppy raisers for the Guide Dogs For The Blind are, from left, Soraya McBride, Amy Schenck, and Emily Mason.

KIM VAN METER/209 Health & Wellness

POSTED September 19, 2012 1:11 a.m.

The Guide Dogs For The Blind program was incorporated in May 1942 and began instruction of students in a rented home in Los Gatos, California, south of San Jose. A German shepherd named “Blondie” was one of the first dogs trained. Blondie had been rescued from a Pasadena dog pound and later paired with Sgt. Leonard Foulk, the first serviceman to graduate from the new school. Since that beginning more than 60 years ago, the program has graduated more than 10,000 Guide Dog teams.

But it’s not a walk in the park to graduate from the program to go on to be an official Guide Dog.

Only 50 percent make the grade, but that doesn’t mean all that training goes down the drain. On the contrary, they simply undergo a career change.

However, until graduation the dogs are all trained the same and that’s where the work comes in.

Three Oakdale kids are shouldering that workload without reservation as they serve as official puppy raisers for the Guide Dogs For The Blind program.

Julie Schenck and her daughter Amy Schenck are raising an 11-month-old golden lab named Kristin; Kevin McBride and his daughter Soraya McBride are raising a 5-month-old black lab named Benito; and Lorna Mason and her daughter Emily Mason are raising a yellow lab named Virgil and an 8-month-old half-golden retriever, half-golden lab named Tommy.

The puppy raisers will have their charges until they are “recalled” between 14 to 18 months. Then the dogs will train for another five months of formal training with licensed Guide Dog mobility instructors before they can graduate the program.

Graduation day is filled with tears of joy and sadness as they say goodbye to their beloved charges but watch as they start their lives with their new blind owners.

“I’ve always been interested in doing this,” said Emily, a high school junior who aspires to be a veterinarian when she grows up. Emily and her mother Lorna were introduced to the Guide Dog program when they ran into puppy raisers at the Oakdale Chocolate Festival last year. The chance meeting sparked a call to action and soon they were attending meetings at the local puppy club in Modesto and learning how they could become involved.

Dogs born and bred into the program remain special for their entire life, no matter where they end up. In fact, even if the dog is adopted by the family that trained him as a puppy and then later cannot keep him, the dog is returned to the Guide Dog Program. And they are never euthanized just because they are no longer a good fit for their “job.”

“These are really special dogs, not just your regular labs,” Julie Schenck said.

The dogs are specifically bred for temperament and intelligence, which makes them highly sought after, even to adopt.

Although there are clubs all over California, the Modesto puppy raising club has the most members.

The main job for puppy raisers is to socialize and teach obedience, Lorna said.

But just as they are teaching the dogs, the process is teaching the puppy raisers, too. The club pays for all vet bills and provides the crates, but the puppy raisers pay for the food.

“There are a lot of rules, such as keeping the puppy on a leash at all times, certain words are no-nos, no bedding in the crate…it’s not a decision you make lightly,” Julie said.

“I thought I knew a lot about dogs until I became a puppy raiser for the program. I’ve learned so much about training that I can use with my personal dogs,” Lorna said.

Overall, it’s a learning experience for all involved — even if there are guaranteed to be tears at the end of the journey when the puppies move onto their next stage of life.

Puppy raisers will always get updates on how their dogs are doing in their training and which phase they are currently in, so the sadness of letting go isn’t quite as traumatic.

And as an added bonus, puppy raisers have the option of receiving a new puppy on the same day that they let go of their previous one.

The Guide Dog For The Blind program is not government funded and operates solely on donations.

For more information on how to become a puppy raiser or how to donate to this cause, go to

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