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Guiding the way through darkness

April Hegland, 17, of Bremerton is currently raising Lester, a 14-month-old Labrador retriever, for Guide Dogs for the Blind Inc. The Hegland family has already raised four puppies for the program and their last recently completed professional training to become a certified guide dog. - Photo by Reneé Mizar
April Hegland, 17, of Bremerton is currently raising Lester, a 14-month-old Labrador retriever, for Guide Dogs for the Blind Inc. The Hegland family has already raised four puppies for the program and their last recently completed professional training to become a certified guide dog.
— image credit: Photo by Reneé Mizar

Aside from being decked out in a green jacket, Lester appears like any other happy puppy eager to be the center of attention. But this 14-month-old yellow Labrador retriever is no typical dog — he’s a pup with a mission.

Lester is currently in the first phase of training to become a guide dog for the visually impaired. The Hegland family of Bremerton is raising the pup under the auspices of the nonprofit agency Guide Dogs for the Blind Inc., which breeds its own dogs for the program.

The Heglands — mother Joanne, father Dan, and daughters Kari, 20, and April, 17 — began raising puppies about four-and-a-half years ago when Kari joined a combined 4-H and guide dog raising group. Lester is the family’s fifth puppy, and their last one, a yellow Labrador retriever named Tippi, recently began working as a professional guide dog.

“In a way it’s kind of like raising a young child because you have to use the same skills — lots of patience and encouraging and reinforcing good behavior,” said Joanne Hegland. “It’s basically having good follow through and being consistent.”

Puppy raisers work to socialize their dog to as many different environments and situations as possible, teach good house manners and get them people- and animal-friendly. All dogs are also house trained and are taught 13 basic obedience commands, such as “forward” and “halt.”

April said each of her family’s puppies has had its own set of training challenges, such as being very dog-distracted and unfocused while outside. She said the family’s current dog, Lester, also had some issues but they have successfully worked through them.

“We just have to keep his confidence up by going places. For a while he was afraid of going through certain doors,” April said. “We’re just going to make this fun for him and concentrate on that instead of making sure he follows all the rules perfectly and it seems to have been working.”

Joanne said her entire family, especially her two daughters, has benefitted from taking part in puppy raising. She said the program has given Kari and April numerous opportunities to grow as public speakers, whether it be doing informative presentations about puppy raising or just talking about the dogs to curious people on the street.

“Just the responsibility that goes with raising a puppy has been good for them as they’ve grown up,” Joanne said. “It’s kind of a way the girls could help others by doing something they love and enjoy that, in turn, can be a help to somebody else.”

Joanne said one of the most difficult aspects of puppy raising is having people want to pet the puppy when it is out being trained. She advises that when people see a harnessed guide dog out in public, the dog and its trainer or blind partner should not be bothered.

“If people could be respectful and allow the partner and dog to navigate on their own, it works out best,” Joanne said. “When they’re out working as a team and they get disrupted by people, it really throws them off. They need to focus on their job at hand and be left alone to work out their proper route.”

To help with their puppy raising difficulties and learn new training techniques, the Heglands joined a local puppy raising group called the Kitsap Navigators. The group meets nearly every week for informational meetings where raisers often discuss challenges and successes, obedience exercises, and take the puppies on excursions together.

After completing the puppy raising phase, which lasts 12 to 18 months, potential guide dogs begin five months of formal guidework training. They are sent to one of Guide Dog for the Blind’s two facilities, either in San Rafael, Calif., or Boring, Ore., for training by professional instructors. The dogs are also trained alongside their new blind partners.

Of the Hegland’s four previous dogs, only Tippi made it all the way through the program to become a certified guide dog. She graduated from the Oregon facility on May 3 and was matched with a blind partner who lives in Portland. The family’s other three puppies underwent “career changes” and became pets for families in Oregon, California and Alaska.

“The hardest thing is saying goodbye to the puppy when they go into training because it’s almost like they’re a member of the family,” Joanne said. “But that’s part of the process and we realize that from the beginning.”

Lester begins professional training in September and he is likely the last puppy the Heglands will raise. April, who is preparing for her senior year of high school, said the time and attention focused on puppy raising will now go toward her studies and college applications.

“It’s been really cool to have it as a family project and it has taught me a lot,” April said. “Even though it’s hard to give them up it’s totally worth it in the end to see our dog totally change the life of someone who’s visually impaired.”

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