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Hank has sights set on store life

November 28, 2006|by JANET HEIM

HAGERSTOWN - Hank, a 4-year-old black Labrador retriever, delights in greeting visitors to Roger and Ellen Collins' store in Hagerstown.

But as a candidate for the national Guiding Eyes for the Blind program, he has been trained to do far more.

The irony is, Hank himself has eye trouble.

A veterinarian discovered that Hank has cataracts, which eventually could cause him to go blind.

So in November 2004, after successfully passing the rigorous training to be a guide dog for the blind, Hank was released from the program.

"We were really surprised," Ellen Collins said. "He had a graduation date, and the only thing missing was a person. He was a wonderful guide."

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The couple ought to know.

Since 1993, shortly before they moved to Hagerstown from the Washington, D.C., area, the Collinses have been volunteering as puppy raisers for the program.

As puppy raisers, they would get an 8-week-old puppy, bred especially for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, and train it until it was about 16 months old, about the time the dog would be growing out of adolescence.

"It's like getting kids ready to go to college," Roger Collins said. "You know the timeline."

Hank was born in December 2002, and the couple got him the following February. He was the 14th dog the Collinses helped raise for Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

The dogs and trainers go to puppy class twice a month to make sure each dog is being trained properly. In this area, classes are held in Frederick, Md., for the 20 or so volunteers who are training guide-dog puppies.

The puppies are socialized by taking them to churches, movies, restaurants and everywhere else the trainers go.

Ellen Collins the best guide dogs are not afraid to practice "intelligent disobedience" with their blind handler. That means that if the dog is commanded to do something that is unsafe for the human, the dog will choose a safe alternative.

While the Collinses do get attached to the dogs they raise, they said it's not hard to give them up because they know the people to whom the dogs are going. The couple keeps in touch with, and even visits, the blind handlers who are paired with the dogs they raised.

During all of their years working in the program, the Collinses had one very important rule: If any of the dogs they trained was released from the program, never - no matter how cute - would they adopt the dog for their own.

They said, though, that there were three dogs for whom they would have made an exception, and Hank was one of them.

He broke the rule, sort of.

After raising their 15th guide dog puppy, the Collinses decided it was time to retire from the program. So, as they explain it, adopting Hank was coming full circle. He had been one of their favorite dogs because he was laid-back and friendly with children, qualities they wanted in a store dog.

And besides, they love him.

Hank now spends his days greeting customers at the Collins' store - Howard's Art Supplies & Frames on Dual Highway - wearing his "Hank the Store Dog" harness.

Hank delights in the company of customers, especially those such as the UPS and FedEx delivery people, who bring him treats.

"He has a pretty big fan club," Roger Collins said. "A lot of people come to the store just to visit Hank."

For more information about the Guiding Eyes for the Blind program, call Terry Scripture at 717-642-6941.

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