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Seeing to Walter's training

Teacher helps prepare a guide dog, says he'll be hard to give up when the work is done.

August 05, 2011|By Megan O'Neil megan.oneil@latimes.com
  • Guide Dogs of America puppy in-training Walter at his trainer's Glendale home on Thursday, August 4, 2011. (Raul Roa/Staff Photographer)
Guide Dogs of America puppy in-training Walter at his…

The gardeners on Woodland Avenue like to get started early, and on this particular morning their leaf blowers are loud enough to send the average household pet into a frenzy.

But eight-month-old Walter does little more than perk his ears up and survey the scene through a screened window before returning to a chewed-up doggie toy.

The controlled behavior was learned during months of intensive training under the Guide Dogs of America puppy program, meant to prepare the animals for their eventual careers as guides for the blind.

“It is amazing to see how they grow and progress and change,” said Nicole Abranian, who is helping to train Walter with her mother, long-time Verdugo Woodlands Elementary School teacher Sheila Treston-Abranian.

It is a commitment that the dog-loving family embraced two years ago, not long after the deaths of their own pets.

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The program is rigorous, said Louise Henderson, manager of the puppy department at Guide Dogs of America. The organization breeds its own animals to achieve the right mix of smarts and obedience. The dogs spend about 18 months living with volunteer puppy trainers before returning to the organization’s headquarters for an additional six months of formal guide training.

“What we need when the dog comes into formal training is a dog that is very well socialized, knows his basic obedience and has good house manners,” Henderson said.

Only about half of the dogs make it through, she said. The rest are put up for adoption. The Abranian’s first puppy in training — Fergie — washed out for medical reasons and is now their family pet.

Walter, a black Labrador, is still on track. The list of forbidden behaviors is long. He is learning not to pull on his leash, not to jump on strangers, not to lunge at other animals and not to chase tennis balls. Mistakes are corrected immediately.

Wearing a bright yellow vest that identifies him as a guide dog in training, he accompanies the Abranians everywhere, including work, the grocery store and jury duty at the Burbank courthouse. The idea is to expose him to everything he might encounter as a guide dog.

“The judge — she wanted to take him home,” Sheila Treston-Abranian said.

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