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PUPPIES FOR A CAUSE
RAISING GUIDE DOGS FOR THE BLIND TAKES SPECIAL CARE

They give their love and time to puppies -- golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers and German shepherds -- that eventually become guide dogs for the blind. And recently those volunteers honored one of their own.

Mary Ellen Pratt of Derby, a volunteer with Guiding Eyes for the Blind since 1986, was named Volunteer of the Year at Guiding Eyes' annual banquet in Yorktown Heights, near New York City.

"Quite an honor, as most people involved in this program are also volunteers," said Vicki Halstead of Elma, a volunteer herself.

Pratt has raised 13 puppies. They are just 8 weeks old when she takes them into her home. She "socializes" them, teaching them "house manners" as if they were her own. When they're almost 2 years old, she tearfully gives them back to Guiding Eyes to undergo training to be guide dogs.

These dogs are trained before the training. Call it canine undergraduate school.

"This all started when our daughter, who was 17, asked for a big dog," Pratt said. "We weren't about to make a 12-to-14-year commitment, so her father threw out the challenge to raise a puppy. It's a way to give back. We've been involved ever since."

As the coordinator of Guiding Eyes' Erie region, Pratt runs classes where "raisers" learn to handle these special puppies. She also runs individual classes when necessary, and meets every week with raisers who have a pup younger than 6 months. Her weekly workload sometimes tops 80 hours. Not to mention the paperwork involved to keep the organization running smoothly.

"Mary Ellen is available 24 hours a day to help us if a problem or question occurs," Halstead said.

When interviewing a potential raiser, Pratt said she's "looking for a natural nurturer, a person with commitment. When you have a Labrador, you know what a vacuum cleaner is really about."

What works best for people sometimes also goes for pooches. In teaching general obedience to a puppy, raisers use only positive motivation, "with praise or massage," Pratt said.

"I keep medical reports for Guiding Eyes. "It's 2 4/7 job, but it's extremely rewarding. I've gone as far as Israel to visit the dogs I've raised."

When they give the dogs back, it doesn't mean it's the last time raisers see them. They have reunions, puppy-sit, even go on vacation with them.

Pratt knows how to work with humans, too.

"Somehow she makes every person feel like she has all the time in the world for them. She truly understands the bittersweet moment when our dogs go in for training," Halstead said. "She's become an extension of my family. She's given immensely to the community and has inspired others to also give."

At this writing, almost 30 puppies are being trained in the area.

Sometimes a puppy will not make it to guide-dog status and will become a pet. The volunteers like to think that the dog chooses its role. They never use the word "fail" in front of their puppies.

Have an idea about a local person whose life would make a good profile or a neighborhood issue worth exploring? Write to: Louise Continelli, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240, or e-mail lcontinelli@buffnews.com.

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