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Training dogs to be another's eyes

The Rev. Ben and Pia Carlsen, formerly of Sebeka with Zelda the dog.

There is nothing unusual about a seeing eye dog leading a blind man. However, a sighted man needing a seeing eye dog gives pause for thought. Why? Within the next few minutes I learned the man was Rev. Benjamin Carlsen, former pastor of the Our Saviour's Lutheran Church in Sebeka and the dog was on a training run.

Actually, Ben said, it was his wife, Pia, who hit on becoming puppy trainers. It was a concrete way to enjoy a dog while they are training it to become the eyes for a blind person.

A family who passes muster to become puppy raisers knows that while there is no cost to getting the dog, they agree to provide everything necessary for the dog the year they have it. They must be prepared to attend meetings with other puppy raisers to talk over problems and see how they measure up.

Aside from maintenance, it includes all doctor bills that may be incurred and a comfortable living space with the family. By the end of the first year the puppy should know several things, like learning to lead, have no aggression, and social relations.

Dogs come from several breeds: Labrador, Golden Retriever and German Shepherd. They are put in a puppy raiser's home at 7 weeks. Personality traits looked for include not shy about cars or strangers, and a responsible work ethic. Training starts on day one.

Carlsens are expected to attend monthly meetings with other raisers' families and their dogs, as well as teaching the dog the things it must be expected to know by the end of the first year. Having plenty of treats on hand is a must and great incentive.

In the Leader Dogs For The Blind program, dogs are typically ready to be working by 18 months of age. Dogs that fail the program are either re-careered or adopted into homes.

A seeing eye dog in Wadena belongs to Ryan Andrews. His Golden Retriever, Levi, has been with him 9 years. He is mortally afraid in a smoke filled room and tries to drag Ryan away from it. Only after his harness comes off at the end of a day does Levi become a normal dog. Since aggression has been trained out of him, he is not a guard dog.

It was more than 80 years ago, in 1929 during Herbert Hoover's reign as president, that the first Seeing Eye Program came on board. Hawaii has 800 groups.

The year that was allotted for Ben and Pia to turn Zelda, a wiggly puppy, into a handsome working dog is up and they are looking forward to their next pupil. They can be proud of the valuable animal, groomed to make someone like Ryan's night into day, that they will be turning in for the next step in the four-month seeing eye dog program. Making friends with other raisers is a byproduct of an already fulfilling endeavor.

Ben and Pia have become accomplished trainers. They have managed to turn time spent with their dog into a project that can make life worth the living for an unsighted person somewhere.