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Puppy Love

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Someone has to give service dogs their start

By Traci Hukill

Kindergarten classrooms are wacky places, with all those madcap natural impulses careening into the walls of civilized behavior. The conflict reveals itself in little ways: sometimes the pupils socialize when they ought to be paying attention. Occasionally the noise level gets a little out of control. And once in a while someone poops on the floor.

In this case, the guilty party is Geralyn. A 4-month-old golden retriever, Geralyn and her raiser, Diane Rampelberg, are practicing heeling when Geralyn feels the call of nature. She squats indecorously in the middle of the pen and has hardly finished her toilette when the offending matter is scooped away.

"Ohhh," says trainer Mandy Book. "That's why she was sniffing at the floor a minute ago."

Class continues in noisy fashion; an ongoing chorus of enthusiastic "Good boy!"s and "Good girl!"s greets the puppies' every move, and each time two puppies come within four feet of each other, the event is celebrated with a flurry of wagging tails and high-pitched whines. All the puppies wear distinctive blue and yellow capes that denote their enrollment in the Canine Companions for Independence training program. Since 1975 the Santa Rosa-based agency has placed 1,500 dogs, mostly golden and Labrador retrievers, with people who have physical disabilities or impaired hearing. More than 200 of them are in the South Bay region. The dogs learn to pick up dropped objects, switch on lights and perform other simple tasks. Just as importantly, they provide companionship to people who might otherwise find themselves isolated because of disabilities.

Geralyn and her classmates Buchner and Rosie meet at the Premium Pet store in Sunnyvale each Monday evening to learn basic public etiquette--how to sit, stay and come when called. After 14 months or so of obedience training they'll undergo six to nine months of intensive study with Canine Companions for Independence--if they can cut it. CCI training is tough, and some dogs get "released" early. Dropouts may go on to careers as drug sniffers, or else they'll be placed in loving homes.

"I don't know," Marsha Borr confides to Book with a worried glance down at Rosie. "She doesn't sit, she doesn't stay. She does it selectively."

"If there's a payoff for her at the end, she's absolutely going to do it," Book says. In this program good performance is always rewarded with enthusiasm and treats. Steak and canned cat food reportedly produce fabulous results.

Puppy raising isn't for everyone. Essentially a puppy raiser is a foster parent who brings up a dog for someone else. Love and discipline are key, and the point is to teach the dog how to bond with humans. The pups accompany them to work and sleep in their bedrooms. And at graduation, when the dogs are 14 to 16 months old, the puppy raisers have to hand over the leash to the CCI trainers.

"It's hard," admits Rampelberg, who raised a puppy named Dustin before taking in Geralyn. "You cry. We tried to make it sure in our minds that he wasn't our dog, that we were taking care of him. But CCI does a great job," she adds. "We just got a card about him last week."

After puppy kindergarten is over, a new class of older, more dignified, dogs arrives. This is altogether a subtler affair. Piper, Thalia, Tatiana, Fiona and Vallejo lie placidly at their raisers' feet while Book goes over next week's visit to the mall, where the dogs will learn to ride elevators, take stairs and maintain their composure while traversing the food court--"which is always a challenge," Book says wryly. Later in the summer they'll probably take a trip to the airport and learn how to board planes and sit under airplane seats.

In marked contrast to the kindergartners, these dogs show a high degree of discipline. In one exercise they must choose between their raiser's excited call and a treat brandished by Book. Each dog passes the test and gallops to its person, who in turn rewards it with squeals of delight and something tasty.

It's a pretty good feeling, having a dog choose you over kibbles. But even at this advanced stage of bonding, the raisers have to keep in mind that the dogs they're raising aren't theirs. Says first-time raiser Scott McLaggan, "I have a lot of friends who've lost their dogs recently, and you know what? When you get a dog, there's gonna be a sad day in your life. But you know, this sad day is actually a happy day."

CCI needs puppy raisers in the South Bay. See www.sbchamps.org. for more information.

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From the March 25-31, 1999 issue of Metro.

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