Service brings tears to guide-dog raisers

For families who volunteer to raise potential guide dogs for the blind, it is an emotional act of service that ends in a flood of tears.

"You get the dog when it's little, teach it everything you can and love it like part of the family. Then you give it up."That's how Ruth Counter summed up her family's participation in the 4-H Club Guide Dog program.

The Bill and Ruth Counter family and other families throughout the Western states help prepare dogs as guides for the blind by raising and training them for a year. The Counters, members of the Bountiful 45th Ward, Bountiful Utah East Stake, participate in the program as a "gift of love," Sister Counter said. The payback for their service is buckets of tears and another puppy.

In Utah, Gov. Mike Leavitt has proclaimed September as Guide Dog Puppy Month. The proclamation honors those who make the commitment to raise guide dog puppies and gives thanks to the public and the business community for their cooperation with the program.

The satisfaction of training a puppy that eventually becomes a guide dog is a potential reward, at best. Only 50 percent of the puppies in the program become guide dogs.

Personifying the candidates, Sister Counter said, "Some of them just don't want to be guide dogs." Those who don't can go through a "career change." That means they can go into such "occupations" as police work, search and rescue, drug search, or can simply become family pets.

"Raising the puppies is like going on a mission," Sister Counter explained. "Some missionaries don't get a lot of baptisms, but get satisfaction from doing the work. Since so many puppies don't become guide dogs, we have to get our satisfaction from doing the work."

Some of the reasons the puppies don't make it in the guide-dog program are inappropriate temperament, physical problems and poor behavior. They cannot be overly sensitive to sights and sounds and must not be easily startled or distracted.

The puppies - about 90 each year - are delivered to raisers in the Utah 4-H program at eight weeks old by Guide Dogs for the Blind Inc., of San Rafael, Calif. A year later, the organization returns for the dogs, taking them back to California for five to seven months of specific training. The ones that stay in the program spend 30 days "on campus" with their blind masters, then graduate. Guide Dogs for the Blind reports that a fully trained dog is worth approximately $20,000.

The puppy raisers "give a piece of their heart when they return the dogs after a year," Sister Counter said.

Her daughter Libby, 15, has been responsible for the last three puppies the Counters have received, but the entire family gets involved. Her mother, father, and older brothers Steve, John and Richie are an integral part of Libby's work. All trainees are house dogs and spend their time with the families.

Libby is currently raising Vicka, a black Labrador retriever. Black and golden Labradors, German shepherds and golden retrievers are the only dogs used in the program.

To prepare to give the dog back, Libby said, "I start crying about a month before and have little talks with my dog."

To help soften the pain on the young raisers, the company delivers a new puppy to the ones who are staying in the program the night before they give up the older dog.

Libby recalled how hard it was after giving up one dog (she has raised three, and Richie has raised three) named Connie: "I opened the door and called, `Connie, come,' and she didn't come."

Actually, Connie eventually did come. If the dogs need a career change, the families that raised them get the first opportunity to get them back. The Counters have taken two back so far, Connie and Di. Di did search and rescue work for a while, but then got out of that occupation. Her temperament is so good that she has made hospital visits to cheer up patients.

Besides the puppy, Guide Dogs for the Blind leaves a leash, a name and a jacket with each raiser. The jacket, which fits the same way the harness does on guide dogs, is worn when the puppy is working. The puppies are trained to understand and obey commands.

The raiser's family provides proper shelter and food for the dog.

When the puppies are four months old, the raisers begin socializing them. Laws allow guide dogs and service dogs in training into all public places. So when the trainees are being socialized, they are taken to places such as malls, theaters, airports, markets and restaurants. Wearing their jackets so they know they are working, the dogs are extremely well behaved in public, but Sister Counter said the raisers don't push it; if they see any negative reaction from people in a public place, they leave. She recalled a time when several raisers took their dogs to a movie one night, and when the movie ended many members of the audience commented that they didn't even realize the dogs were there.

The raisers occasionally do demonstrations with their dogs in schools. Sister Counter said she, Richie and Libby scheduled a demonstration at the School With No Name in the Salt Lake homeless shelter and were told the students' attention would be hard to hold. But as it turned out, she said, the students were extremely interested and attentive during the program.

When the jacket is removed, the trainees "act just like dogs," Sister Counter said; they run and jump and play.

Taking care of the dogs means feeding them, brushing their teeth, cleaning their ears and bathing them if necessary. The raisers touch the dogs a lot. That prepares the dogs who graduate to a blind master who will have to rely on touch to care for them.

Despite the demands, Libby said she enjoys raising the dogs. "I'm an animal person," she said. "If I were on a desert island, I would rather have dogs with me than people."

Sister Counter said the program gives raisers such as Libby the opportunity to improve their confidence and self-esteem. Raising the dogs requires not only sacrifice and self control, but also good human social skills because the raisers meet together so often to socialize their animals, to test them and to show them off.

The Counters, who joined the Church in Overland Park, Kan., in 1977, believe the work they do with dogs is important service, possibly someday providing a great blessing for a blind person.

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