February 2007

Locals find raising guide dogs is a labor of love

By Kelly Shethar

LINDA AND DAVID STARLIPER AND GUIDE-DOG-IN-TRAINING, CHERThe holiday travelers waited patiently at the Cortez Municipal Airport to board their flight for Denver. When the last passenger made her way through the metal detector, the alarm sounded. “We’ll have to pat her down,” a security officer said.

As the officer knelt to start the inspection, the passenger’s composure melted and she began to wag her tail furiously. She was, after all, just a puppy and this was only her second time traveling by air.

Cher is a 16-month-old yellow Labrador retriever. Her traveling companions, Linda and David Starliper of Summit Ridge, Colo., are raising her as part of the Guide Dogs for the Blind puppy-raising program. The Starlipers were making their way to Denver for the holidays and, as a guide-dog puppy in training, Cher goes everywhere with them.

“She did fine on this trip,” Linda said. “The first trip, it wasn’t pretty. The copilot had to carry her on board because she just balked at going up the steps. The plane [engine] was going and she was only 5 months old.”

On this trip, despite the noisy engines, Cher calmly negotiated the narrow steps to board the Great Lakes Airlines plane. She followed Linda and David to the back row and settled quietly at their feet, where she remained for the duration of the flight. It was a demonstration of the successful training she’s received from the Starlipers over the past 14 months.

Linda, 67, a retired teacher and counselor, and David, 71, who retired from the railroad, began raising guide-dog puppies four years ago. It’s an entirely volunteer endeavor and, although David claims to be “just a bystander,” Linda insists he participates in the puppy-raising as much as she does.

Cher is their third puppy, and Linda made sure to explain that they don’t have a hand in choosing the puppies’ names.

LINDA STARLIPER SHOPPING WITH CHER“We don’t name them. I’m going to wear a sweatshirt saying that,” she said, laughing. “My last dog was named Glendale.” And their first puppy was, simply, Carl.

Linda said she became interested in raising a guide-dog puppy after reading a book about guide dogs as a child. However, she never pursued that interest when she was young.

“As an adult, I developed some heart problems and I needed something to take me out of myself. You know, you get to thinking about your health too much,” Linda said. After seeing an ad seeking puppy-raisers, she decided to fulfill that childhood desire.

“And I thought I’d better do it now because I’m not getting any younger,” she said. “My heart problems are all better, not because I did the guide-dog program, but I loved it and I kept doing it.”

Linda and David are two of some 1,400 puppy-raisers across eight Western states currently participating in the guide-dog puppy program, according to the Guide Dogs for the Blind, Inc., website, www.guidedogs.com.

Guide Dogs for the Blind was created in 1942 and operates two facilities located in San Rafael, Calif., and Boring, Ore. The school matches guide dogs with blind and visually impaired people to provide them with increased mobility. More than 10,000 teams have graduated from Guide Dogs for the Blind since its founding.

The school offers all the training and support the students require, as well as follow-up service for their graduates for the lifetime of their guide-dog partnership. Private donations fund all the school’s programs, and all its services are provided free of charge to students.

In addition to providing canine guides, Guide Dogs offers many other programs including the K9 Buddy Program, which provides specially selected dogs to become pets for visually impaired children who are not ready for a guide dog. The guide-dog school also works to find jobs for its “career-changed” dogs, ones who don’t make the cut to be guide dogs. A career-changed dog may be adopted by its puppy-raiser or go on to work in search and rescue, hearing or servicedog training, agility, cancer detection or pet therapy.

Guide Dogs puppy-raising is also an accredited 4-H project, and many puppy-raising groups are formed under the 4-H program.

A raiser’s job is to teach the puppy basic obedience and good manners, and to socialize it. Puppies accompany their raisers just about everywhere — grocery stores, school and work, restaurants, shops and malls — to gain exposure to a variety of places, people and situations.

The Americans with Disabilities Act allows guide dogs in most public places, including airlines. Accessibility for the guide-dog puppies in training, however, depends on the state, Linda said. “In Colorado they can go anywhere that a guide dog can go.”

When a guide-dog puppy in training is working it wears a distinctive identification jacket.

“Once you put the jacket on, Cher’s a different dog,” David said.

But sometimes that jacket creates its own set of challenges.

“When the public sees a guide dog [puppy] with its jacket on they want to pet it,” David said. “That’s not a good thing. The dog is working.”

According to the Guide Dogs web site, a person should always ask permission to meet a guide dog or a puppy in training and should never distract a guide dog. Individuals should approach one at a time, speak softly to the dog and offer the back of their hand for the dog to sniff.

The Starlipers said that most people are cooperative and helpful when they are out in public with Cher. They don’t get much resistance from business owners to allow them access.

“Restaurants are the biggest problem,” Linda said. She said sometimes business owners just don’t understand that Cher should be allowed into their establishment, but she uses that as an opportunity to educate them. She doesn’t get pushy, however, so as not to create a bad impression of the puppy-raising program.

“If people are too resistant, I just drop it and don’t go back,” she said. Puppy-raisers certainly aren’t on their own. The Starlipers, along with other puppy-raisers in the area, attend regular meetings organized by Darla Welty of Mancos, the volunteer leader for the local guide-dog puppy group. Welty evaluates each dog, makes suggestions for specific training situations and instructs the raisers in new training methods. It is Welty’s job to make sure all training procedures are done the way Guide Dogs wants.

Welty is not only the direct link between Guide Dogs for the Blind and the raisers in the area, she also brought the guide-dog puppy program to the Four Corners about 17 years ago. She was raising a guide-dog puppy at the time and knew the program was looking for more raisers.

“The biggest thing that you have to have is the commitment of time,” Welty said. “When you get a baby puppy at 8 weeks old, you are getting up in the middle of the night — taking them out every two hours, feeding them three times a day, and spending a lot of time with them.”

During this phase, Welty meets weekly with puppy-raisers and their new charges.

“We meet once a week because the puppies change so fast,” she said.

“That’s how often you may have to change how you are dealing with the puppy.”

The good thing about dogs, she said, is that they pass through the most time-consuming stage quickly, usually in a few weeks. After that, when the puppies are 5 or 6 months old, raisers attend meetings twice a month to work on any issues that might arise.

Besides offering Welty a chance to assess each puppy’s progress, the meetings are also fun training opportunities. Recently, the group met at the Durango Mall for a scavenger hunt to expose the puppies to the shopping-mall environment. This type of exercise is a crucial component of the puppies’ development, Welty said.

“Dogs learn context all the time,” she said. “If a dog learns to be really good and calm and quiet in your house that’s nice, and for most dogs that’s enough.” Guide dogs, however, must learn to be good and calm in every type of environment and situation.

Welty said that even with the significant time commitment and responsibility involved in raising a guide dog it is still a rewarding endeavor.

And it’s needed, she said. “We are always looking for dedicated people who would like to do this.”

Welty looks for people who can make the commitment to care for a puppy for 14 to 18 months and have the time to go to all of the meetings. If a puppy-raiser has their own pets, those pets must be nice and friendly, and raisers must have some kind of fenced enclosure for their puppy.

Raisers who work often obtain permission from their employer to take the puppy to work. And if a young person wants to raise a puppy, Welty makes sure a parent will do the project with them.

In the process of socializing and training a guide-dog puppy, raisers predictably become very attached.

“When you teach animals to do things, you really form a great bond with them,” Welty said.

Ultimately, the most difficult challenge of being a puppy-raiser is giving the dog back.

“The biggest thing we hear from people is, ‘Oh, I couldn’t bear to give up a dog’,” Welty said. “We tell them that this is like having children. At some point, you plan on your child leaving you. And you are not successful unless that does happen.

“These dogs go back and we hear about their training. We get invited to graduations and people are so appreciative and so thankful,” she said. “If you enjoy dogs and you enjoy raising them and training them, you’ve had fun the entire project year. And you get to do that year after year.”

And for puppy-raisers who come back year after year, the rewards are great.

“When you give time and, really, so much of yourself to these dogs, that makes it a much more meaningful gift,” Welty said. “This is not just a money thing — you didn’t just write a check. You put the kind of time and effort into that dog that makes it a very special gift for somebody.”

For the Starlipers, the time to send Cher back is approaching. And even though she is their third puppy, it doesn’t get easier.

“You wouldn’t do this if you didn’t like dogs. You get really attached,” Linda said. “Giving them up is just terrible. I got notice that Cher will probably go back March 31st. I just put that out of my mind until the day comes.”

As Linda and David struggle to hold back tears, they remember the bittersweet heartbreak of returning their first dog, Carl.

“We both had tears in our eyes,” David said. “I was upset and didn’t want to do it. But a young blind girl got up and she thanked everybody for raising the dogs. She said, ‘I want to thank you for letting me see the world.’

“It was worth it,” he said. “It gives you some hope.”