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Sixth grader raising guide dog for blind
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Hannah Erias, 11, hugs her Guide Dogs for the Blind puppy Cascade with her younger sister Jordan, 9, and their mother Stacy seen with her. - photo by GLENN KAHL

LATHROP — There’s nothing like a playful young puppy to stimulate a home with its need to be house-trained and its natural instinct to chew furniture and cry in the middle of the night.

There were nearly a dozen dogs delivered to anxious families throughout the Central Valley who had waited patiently in the parking lot of a Manteca discount store to see a truck driven by Santa pull up with their puppies.

Eleven-year-old Mossdale Elementary School sixth grader Hannah Erias was eagerly waiting to be handed her puppy from that truck.  She has it in her heart that she wants to give her all to a blind person she does not know by raising a Labrador into a functioning arm of the Guide Dogs for the Blind.

“We started this because we knew the puppy would be good for someone,” Hannah said.

It takes more than one person to raise a puppy into an adult Guide Dog.

It takes a whole family. 

Given the name “Cascade,” the pup has already won the hearts of Hannah’s mom Stacy and her dad Joseph, as well as that of her younger sister Jordan.  Jordan says she is helping her older sister with Cascade so she can be ready for the next guide dog puppy to enter the family circle in two years.

Hannah’s mom said the girls were so excited about having a puppy that on the first night they asked to sleep downstairs next to the kennel to keep it company.  Two hours later, Dad took over the night-time duty, sleeping on the floor with one arm extended over the dog to make it feel safe and stay quiet.

“She’s really, really pretty,” Hannah said.  “She likes to be near people and will go over and climb up into someone’s lap to be held.  She’s very playful.  Mom says she’s an awesome dog.”

House-training has been a must, with Hannah getting up and taking her outside at 6 o’clock in the morning, after every meal and again at 11 p.m.  Cascade, like all the other guide dogs, had to be quarantined to the family home for two weeks before she could be taken outside.  Her quarantine ended on Jan. 3. She is still limited to where she can be walked until she has had all of her shots, for fear of contracting diseases such as Parvo from other dogs in the neighborhood.

The young Lathrop girl was introduced to the Guide Dogs for the Blind program through a story in her sixth grade reader that included the training of guide dogs.  She said she thought she might be able to do that too, just like the girl in the story.  Now she is waiting for the day she can introduce Cascade to her classmates at Mossdale Elementary and at Sunday school.

She said she did her own research on guide dogs after reading the book and presented her findings to her parents for their thoughts and approval.  Hannah remembered it was the next day that they learned there was a meeting of other guide dog families at the Christmas tree lighting in Tracy that served as an orientation for the Erias family .

She said they had to first go to a minimum of three meetings with program directors and have a home visit before being approved to receive a puppy.  Linda Rubino, of Tracy, was one of three leaders who conducted the visit to their Lathrop home.  That was followed by a test for the entire family – puppy sitting for the weekend of Dec. 8.

“I was in charge,” Hannah said.  “It was hard because he was crazy and we took him to the Lathrop Christmas Parade” after picking him up in the morning. 

“After our home visit, they said we would be getting our dog a week from Saturday.  We went to the Costco center on Dec. 22.  We were going to get a real Christmas tree but after having the test dog we were afraid she, too, would eat the pine needles like the first tried eating pebbles outside.  So we had two plastic trees upstairs instead,” she recalled.

Hannah’s mom Stacy added, “We just hope she passes and we do the right things with her” to become an effective guide dog.

The Mossdale Elementary sixth grader said her puppy eats three times a day — breakfast, lunch and dinner, waking up at 6 every morning.

There are meetings for the surrogate parents to attend each month held at the Stockton Airport terminal where the dogs are taught to sit, stay and to walk up and down the stairs; the families and dogs. It is also a social event.  The handlers are also shown how to brush the dogs’ teeth.   

“We’ll all be pretty upset when we have to give her back,” she added.