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Family raises dog to be a helper for the blind

January 03, 2000

Guiding Eyes for the BlindBy ANDREA BROWN-HURLEY / Staff Writer

photo: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer




Karen Evans knows what it means to be attached at the hip.

Evans for six months cared for herself, her home and her family with a black Labrador retriever puppy leashed to her belt.

cont. from front page

The Huyetts Crossroads resident used the umbilical cord method to train Flanders, the guiding eye dog she and her husband, Charlie, pre-trained for Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

"Everything I did, Flanders did with me," said Karen Evans, 30.

"That dog was Karen's life," added Charlie Evans, 46.

Guiding Eyes for the Blind is a nonprofit New York-based program that has provided seeing eye dogs valued at $25,000 to blind people in the United States and abroad since 1956.

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The program's success hinges upon the efforts of volunteer puppy raisers such as the Evans family, who take potential guide dogs into their homes to teach the specially bred animals basic manners and obedience.

"It takes a very giving person," Karen Evans said.

Volunteer puppy raisers shoulder most of the expenses of raising their guide dogs, though the program offers medical reimbursements, Charlie Evans added.

Nine-week-old Flanders began his 1/1/2-year stint with the Evans family on Sept. 27, 1997, shortly after Karen Evans inquired about the guide dog program at a booth set up at Valley Mall in Hagerstown, she said.

"We didn't know what to expect," Charlie Evans said.

"We just kind of jumped in feet first," his wife added.

An animal lover, Karen Evans was grieving the cancer death of her Doberman pinscher, Ginger, and thought becoming a volunteer puppy raiser would be a good way to care for a dog without becoming too attached, she said.

Her husband thought the effort would be worthwhile because it would help a person in need, he said.

Raising Flanders also gave Karen Evans an outlet for her maternal instincts, which she and Charlie thought might remain unfulfilled after several unsuccessful years of trying to start a family, they said.

"I thought this would be my thing, and after Flanders graduated we would get another puppy," Karen Evans said.

A regional supervisor for Guiding Eyes for the Blind visited the Evans family at their home to give them program details and gauge whether their lifestyle would suit the needs of the animal, Karen Evans said.

The couple learned that there were "a lot of do's and don'ts" to raising a guide dog, she said.

The canine must remain on a leash for months until it is house trained, can't eat table food or sleep on the furniture. The dog must eat only name brand dog food, and avoid the stuffed toys and rawhide chews that can get lodged in the animal's throat, Karen Evans said.

"They don't want the dog to have a bunch of bad habits before he goes to the blind person," Charlie Evans said.

After one year, the canine receives a blue vest that reads "Guide Dog in Training," which the dog wears on bi-weekly jaunts to public places such as restaurants and grocery stores.

"When you would put the vest on Flanders, it was like he knew he was going to work," Karen Evans said.

And he gave his trainer a workout.

The couple had been rearing the dog for barely six months when Karen got pregnant with daughter Cerys, 1. Exercising Flanders with long daily walks kept Karen Evans in good shape during her pregnancy, she said.

She said she took seriously the time-consuming task of training a guide dog.

"I really put a lot of pressure on myself to raise a good dog. It paid off," she said.

Flanders left the Evans family in January 1999 for his formal guide dog training in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. He graduated as a full-fledged guide dog in November 1999, and recently "became the gift of independence" to Richard Higgins of Marietta, Ga., who has been blind since 1989, according to Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

Higgins has been very happy with Flanders, and vice versa, said Karen Evans.

The dog's new owner even lets him sleep on the bed, she said.

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