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GUIDING THE GUIDES VALLEY AREA TRAINERS LEND DOGS FOR THE BLIND A HELPING PAW.

Byline: Mark Kellam Valley News Writer

A dog may be man's best friend, but a guide dog is much more to the blind - it provides a vital connection to the world.

And how do these canines in yellow jackets land those life-changing jobs?

Hundreds of Valley residents raise puppies for Guide Dogs of America, headquartered in Sylmar since 1948. They give the dogs the training foundation they need to hopefully graduate from the GDA program and get matched with a blind person.

Raisers teach puppies basic commands, such as sit, stay and lay down. They also introduce them to a variety of experiences, from workplace bustle to crowds at Disneyland. The puppies are taught not to approach people, but rather let people come to them. They learn to cross in the middle of the crosswalk, remain calm if another dog barks at them and to leave food on a restaurant table alone - even if no one's watching.

Melissa Hyams of Burbank is raising her third dog for GDA. Morris, a black Labrador retriever, walks obediently beside her as she goes on her errands at the market and post office in Toluca Lake.

Her second dog, L.J., is in his final training and evaluation to be a guide dog. Once a GDA dog is 18 months old, it returns to the facility at 13445 Glenoaks Blvd. and goes through two months of intense training. If the dog passes, it's matched with a blind owner.

Hyams said GDA officials try to make sure they match the dog's temperament with the new owner's personality. If a dog is more active, it's matched with someone who has a Type A personality. If a dog is more laid back, it's placed with someone who has a slower lifestyle.

Another consideration is allergies. Some people are allergic to animal dander, which is found on Labrador retrievers and German shepherds, the two breeds that are commonly used as guide dogs. Therefore, breeders a few years ago started mixing retrievers with poodles because they don't have dander. The new breeds have mixed names, too, such as goldendoodles and labradoodles.

The first dog Hyams raised, named Edit, graduated from the GDA program and was matched with an owner. However, only a few months after graduation, GDA officials called Hyams and said, ``Edit wants to come home.'' Though they didn't tell her what happened, Hyams said she figured out that Edit had become too protective of his new owner.

She had mixed emotions when Edit originally graduated. She was elated that Edit had been successful in the GDA program and was on his way to helping someone lead a more productive and satisfying life. Yet, she was also devastated to lose Edit. She wasn't the only one. Her rottweiler named Dieter was equally saddened by Edit's exit.

To prevent future loneliness, Hyams decided to adopt a GDA breeder dog named Cadence, who stays with her and Deiter all the time - except when she's being bred or having puppies.

Sylvia Michalski of West Hills also raised a GDA breeder dog, named Sienna. Michalski, who has been involved with GDA for 15 years, has raised 10 puppies - two of them graduated.

Owners have the option of bringing their breeder dog to the GDA kennel to give birth or allow the dog to have her litter at home. Michalski let Sienna have her first litter at home.

To Michalski's surprise, Sienna had 12 puppies, four more than the number of nipples on a female dog. Therefore, the puppies had to be rotated for feedings. ``We had to weigh them and make sure the smaller ones were getting enough nutrients,'' she said. That meant bottle-feeding the puppies. ``It was just like having a new baby in the house,'' Michalski said. ``Actually, it was like having a bunch of new babies in the house.''

Then, after about three weeks, Michalski had to start weaning the puppies. The problem is that once you feed them puppy food, the mother dog doesn't clean them any more, which made quite a mess in the Michalski household.

``That's when I said, 'The next litter she'll have at the school and I'll visit her,''' Michalski said, chuckling. Sienna had seven litters for GDA until she retired recently.

One of the most important things a guide dog can learn is how to react to the world outside the home. Many blind people today have full-time jobs, so it's important their guide dog be comfortable in the workplace.

Judi Gomez, who works in the geology department at California State University, Northridge, brings her dog Fina with her to work every day. This is the fifth dog she's raised. As each one gets ready to go off to training, her office has a going-away party.

She got involved in GDA back in college when she and her roommate saw a story about GDA on the TV news. They decided to raise a guide dog. Her first dog, Bower, graduated from the program. Gomez then took an eight-year hiatus from GDA.

When Bower was ready to retire, GDA tracked down Gomez and asked if she'd like him back. She had gotten married in the meantime and her husband, Miguel, gave his immediate OK to bring Bower home. Gomez rushed to the GDA headquarters to get Bower. ``They had just given him a bath and asked if I wanted them to dry him off,'' Gomez said. ``I told them I just wanted to take him as he was.''

She then raised three more dogs - one had allergies and couldn't graduate, another wasn't suitable for the GDA program and became a search-and-rescue dog and the fourth graduated.

Gomez said the option to have a dog enter a search-and-rescue program is a welcome one for dogs that aren't right for GDA, usually because they are too active. All the hard work by the puppy raisers still pays off in some way.

Physical conditions, such as elbow problems or weak hips, can force a dog to be released from the GDA candidate program early. Even though the problems may not affect the dog as a good pet, GDA officials want to make sure the dog can handle working eight to 10 years as a guide dog and those problems could affect their ability to do that.

Fina, who is 18 months old, will soon go into training and, as tradition holds, Gomez's office will have a going-away party for her.

``I'm not the only one raising her,'' Gomez said, adding it's important that everyone involved in the dog's development be involved in celebrating the milestone in its life.

Gomez said the university environment is ideal for a guide-dog-in- training. They get used to going to work and dealing with everyday distractions as such as crowds and skateboarders.

GDA puppy raisers often work together to ``trade'' their dogs, giving them a variety of experiences during their training, Gomez said.

Cherry Teter of Reseda, a puppy raiser for 15 years, said ``trading'' also lets the dogs get used to new owners, which can be important. ``Golden retrievers often get very attached to their owners,'' she said, adding that getting used to a new handler is good for their development.

Teter is raising her 12th dog, a male golden retriever named Laddie.

She got started with GDA 15 years ago after she received repeated information from a guide dog facility on the East Coast. She'd had two pet dogs for several years. When one of them passed away, she wanted to get another dog. She contacted Guide Dogs of America to find out about raising a potential guide dog.

She's spending extra time with Laddie these days because he recently suffered a broken leg and was out of commission for a few months. Recent X-rays show he's completely healed and ready to continue with the GDA program.

Teter has had one dog graduate so far.

Blaine Humbert is raising his third dog for GDA. A professional dog trainer for 20 years, he had been approached several times to raise a GDA dog. About seven years ago, he agreed. He's been very successful, having raised three dogs that have graduated and another that became a search-and-rescue dog. He's currently raising a 4-month-old puppy named Rembrandt for GDA. Rembrandt is still ``all puppy,'' but Humbert said about at seven or eight months, you can see the adult side of the dog start coming through.

Humbert and his wife, Jeanette, said they enjoy raising a GDA puppy for two reasons. First, they know the dog may help a blind person someday. Second, they get to bring a dog with them to places they could never take a pet, such as restaurants and supermarkets.

Lorri Berson of Encino received her guide dog, Nigel, four years ago. She lost her sight 11 years ago from diabetes and it took her awhile to adjust to the idea of having a guide dog. ``But Nigel's the best thing that's ever happened to me - ever,'' Berson said. ``He's given me back my self-confidence and independence.''

One thing very noticeable as the puppy raisers walk their guide-dog- hopefuls is the reactions of people who walk by them. Some ask if they can reach out and pet the animal, others simply smile, indicating they understand the important job the dog and its owner are doing to help others.

Hyams said Morris doesn't take much additional time in her day. It's the people who want to talk to her about Morris and the GDA program that racks up the extra time. But it's time well-spent, she added.

``People ask me, 'how can you give him up?''' Hyams said. ``But when you think about what this dog is going to to do, how it will change a person's life for the better, I always answer, 'how can I not?'''

Raising and training a GDA dog costs about $4,000. Companies, civic organizations and individuals can sponsor a dog. For more information, call (818) 362-5834.

CAPTION(S):

7 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) Lorri Berson of Encino with her guide dog, Nigel. Berson lost her sight 11 years ago and she was matched with Nigel seven years later. She said Nigel has changed her life.

(2 -- color) At a post office in Toluca Lake, Melissa Hyams of Burbank talks with Gregg Cicourel of North Hills about Morris, who Hyams is raising to be a guide dog. Cicourel's dog Micky visits patients regularly at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center.

(3 -- color) Fina is getting used to university life, said her owner Judi Gomez as they walk by several sorority and fraternity signs during rush week at CSUN, where Gomez works.

(4 -- color) Sylvia Michalski of West Hills takes her GDA puppy, Malibu, on a walk.

(5 -- color) Sylvia Michalski of West Hills with the two dogs in her house, Sienna, a retired breeder dog for Guide Dogs of America, and Malibu, in training to be a guide dog.

(6 -- color) Cherry Teter shops in the dairy section at her local Ralphs store, while her GDA puppy Laddie waits patiently.

(7 -- color) Sylvia and Mike Michalski's household turned upside when their Guide Dog of America breeder dog Sienna gave birth to 12 puppies.
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Title Annotation:Valley News
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 1, 2006
Words:1867
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