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Couple sees to dog's good start in life

June 11, 2004|by RICHARD BELISLE

waynesboro@herald-mail.com

MONT ALTO, Pa. - In a way it's like raising a child. You go through the hard stuff during the formative years only to have them move on when they're ready.

"It's like sending them off to college," said Terry Scripture, regional coordinator for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a nonprofit agency in Yorktown, N.Y., that raises and trains seeing eye dogs.

Pups are placed in foster homes at 8 weeks when they begin their basic training - housebreaking, obedience and most important, socialization with people, other animals and their general surroundings.

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Michael Harp, an admissions counselor at Penn State Mont Alto, and his wife, Jennifer, have had Lira, a 6-month-old black Labrador retriever pup, since she was 8-weeks old. They'll keep her until she's between 13 and 18 months then turn her back to the agency for four months of formal guide dog training before she is given to a blind person.

"That's going to be the hard part, giving her back," Michael Harp said as he looked down at the sleeping Lira.

Taking her to work is part of her training, he said.

Harp and his wife share the responsibility. Sometimes Lira goes to work with Jennifer. She's a librarian at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pa.

Lira only goes to work some days now. She'll be going every day when she's 9-months old, Harp said.

"The whole point of the program is to expose them to as many social situations as possible," Harp said. "We need to gradually get her comfortable around people."

Sometimes the couple takes Lira to a park bench in a busy area just so she can get used to traffic and other noises of the world.

During her time with the Harps, Lira will learn basic obedience skills like sitting, staying and coming when called.

She eats only dog food, and only when her dish is set down on the floor and she is given the OK to eat, Harp said. She is never fed by hand and never eats people food, he said.

"She gets no treats, but lots of love and praise. She learns to respect us because of that," he said.

The Harps have even taught Lira to go outside to do her business on command. "We have developed a routine schedule for her," he said

She is sent to her crate every night at 8:30 and sleeps until 6 a.m., he said.

The couple massages Lira for about 15 minutes several times a day, another part of her training that settles her down. "After a massage she can fall asleep at the mall," Harp said.

Lira slept through the whole one-hour interview curled up at Harp's feet.

The Harps have to attend training sessions twice a month in Frederick, Md., and undergo quarterly evaluations from Scripture so the agency can keep track of Lira's progress and advise the couple of any changes in the training they may need to make.

Guiding Eyes for the Blind, one of six guide dog schools in the country, breeds about 600 puppies a year at a facility in New York.

About 90 percent are Labrador retrievers, 5 percent are German shepherds and 5 percent are golden retrievers, Scripture said.

About a fourth of the puppies are removed from the training program when they fail tests given at eight weeks. Those that don't pass are sold as pets. They sell for $650 because of their excellent breeding qualities, Harp said.

Pups that pass their eight weeks tests are placed with people like the Harps for their early training.

Scripture said about half of the dogs placed in foster homes make it through to move onto the four months of guide dog training at the New York facility.

Those that don't pass the foster home program or guide dog training are sold. Foster owners like the Harps get first chance at the pups at no cost.

"We'd take her back in a heartbeat," Harp said.

He said he and his wife know it's going to be tough when it's time for Lira to move on to advanced training, but it will also be exciting when the day comes that they are invited to the school to personally turn her over to her new blind master knowing they took an important role in her early life.

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