Dogs learn to lead

Published in the Ocean County Observer 1/14/02

Staff Writer
BEACHWOOD -- The wet nose of Lady Di pokes out from between two seats in a train car on the North Jersey Coast Line.

The passengers walking by seem as surprised and curious as the German shepherd, since this is Lady Di's first train ride in her journey to become a guide dog.

For 16 months, Beachwood residents Patrick Rankin, 9, and his mother Deana Rankin will expose Lady Di to public situations, including Borough Council meetings, baseball games and school presentations.

The dog must feel comfortable with any and every situation she might encounter as an independent seeing-eye dog, guiding a blind person through a typical day.

Patrick has the primary responsibility for the dog. Lady Di is his 4-H Club project. The family attends bi-monthly meetings with 18 other dog raisers who train and go on field trips together. Although the family has trained seven dogs, this is Patrick's first time in charge of the dog.

"I do it because it's fun and to help people," said Patrick, a fourth grader at Pine Beach Elementary School who sits shyly on a couch.

The Rankin's have two other dogs, an Irish setter named Shannon and a Labrador retriever named Heidi. The dogs teach Lady Di how to get along with fellow canines.

In a cage upstairs lives an iguana, Lady Di's reptilian connection, and from Rosie, the family's tough 5-year-old tabby, Lady Di learns about cats.

The dogs have the run of a large back yard and several times a week Deana Rankin walks Lady Di around the block in order to acquaint her with the sounds of squirrels, birds and traffic, all of which could be distracting.

When the dog seems ready, Deana takes her to the busy intersection of Route 9 and Beachwood Boulevard. Slowly, the two will walk down the shoulder of the road with buses, trucks and cars rushing past. If the dog stalls, Deana cuts back into the quiet neighborhood.

"Watching the comfort level is important to training a dog," said Deana Rankin, clad in a 4-H sweatshirt. "You don't want to force the dog to do something that it is uncomfortable doing."

The Rankin family received Lady Di from Morristown-based The Seeing Eye when she was only seven weeks old.

When the dog is 2 years old, she will go back to Morristown for a four-month program of intensive training.

After that program, Lady Di will be matched with a blind person. Deana Rankin said after training seven such dogs, she still cries when it's time for a dog to leave.

"It's the saddest day," Deana said. "But we know we are making someone else so much happier when they get a seeing-eye dog."

After two months of training, the dog will get a mid-term test on commands and confidence, said Melissa Campbell, a spokeswoman for The Seeing Eye. Confidence is important, Campbell said, as the dog must learn to make her own decisions and learn when to obey and disobey commands.

If the dog is not "up to the challenge" of being a guide dog, the family that raised the dog gets the chance to adopt it, Campbell said. Heidi, the Rankin's Labrador retriever, is one of those dogs.

"Most dogs really enjoy working as a guide dog," Campbell said. "We don't want to force the dogs to do something they are uncomfortable doing. Some dogs just aren't up to it."

Campbell said about 70 percent of the dogs are prepared to be a seeing-eye dogs. But there's even a two-year waiting period to adopt the dogs that are cut from the program.

Other dogs are chosen to go into The Seeing Eye breeding program, which selects good-tempered and highly skilled dogs to create the next generation of guide dogs. The Rankin's raised two dogs who have entered the breeding program. Lady Di is the daughter of Helena, and on Monday the family will get another puppy, Karla, the daughter of Kacy, both dogs the family trained several years ago.

The Seeing Eye defrays costs of food and veterinary costs as the family gives the dog love and a feeling of belonging it could not receive in a kennel, Campbell said.

"Puppy raisers are an integral part of The Seeing Eye program and we could not do what we do without them," the spokeswoman said.

Dorothy Harrison Eustis and Morris Frank, who was the first blind person to use a guide dog, co-founded The See-ing Eye in 1929 in Nashville, Tenn. The organization moved to Morris County in 1931 and has been at its Washington Val-ley Road location since 1965.

For more information, contact The Seeing Eye Inc., P.O. Box 375, Morristown, N.J. 07963-0375, or call (973) 539-4425.

from the Ocean County Observer

Published on January 14, 2002