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These pups will be someone's eyes

Foster families help some waggly tailed ruckuses get ready for jobs as guide dogs.

By CHANDRA BROADWATER
Published March 20, 2007


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photo
[Times photo: Keri Wiginton]
Mr. Bear relaxes beneath the table while Barbara Dupree and Steve Whitaker have lunch at Country Kitchen in Brooksville last week. Dupree brings the golden retriever everywhere to get him acclimated to people and public spaces.

BROOKSVILLE - With his head resting on a paw, Mr. Bear sits quietly by the desk of Hernando Human Resources director Barbara Dupre.

It's 11 a.m., an hour before Dupre will head out with the fluffy 8-month-old golden retriever for lunch. Taking the dog with her everywhere is part of raising a puppy for Southeastern Guide Dogs of Palmetto, something Dupre is doing for the first time.

Just as he will do at the Country Kitchen, Mr. Bear, the future guide dog, continues to quietly sit and doze as Dupre flutters through papers on her desk.

In her government center office, a blue leash connects him to a chair where it is looped through a plastic arm. But that really isn't necessary - even without it, Mr. Bear wouldn't move unless he was told to.

"But when I take his guide dog coat off, he's a totally different dog," Dupre said, laughing. "He's still very much a puppy."

Each year, volunteers like Dupre raise about 300 puppies in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Louisiana and Texas.

As part of the West Pasco and Hernando County branch of the guide dog group, Dupre and a handful of other members hope to get the word out about the local need for puppy raisers.

"I love puppies," Dupre said. "But I already have two other golden retrievers, and if you keep getting puppies, that will turn into a lot of dogs. This is not only good for my puppy fix, but it's for such a great cause."

After filling out an application, Dupre got Mr. Bear at the tender age of about 9 weeks in August. As a puppy raiser, she has agreed to care for him until he's called back for the more intensive guide dog training beginning at 14 months.

In the meantime, Mr. Bear has gone just about everywhere with her.

"Everyone is always surprised at how well-behaved he is," Dupre said. "And he is. He's always quiet."

While she pays for food and toys, all vet visits are covered by the family that has sponsored Mr. Bear. The family named him, too, after a dog they lost.

During the time she has him, Dupre is also responsible for acquainting the dog with his future duties while teaching the animal how to socialize and be obedient.

That includes introducing him to lots of people, sidewalks, elevators, staircases and public transportation. And when he turns 10 months old, Dupre will have to take his blue guide dog coat off when people pet him.

As the puppy ages, a two-inch thick binder provided by the guide dog group gives each puppy raiser other important instructions. Puppy raisers also meet locally at least once a month, and again in St. Petersburg for regional support sessions.

While it may seem hard to give the puppy back, raising a guide dog is one of the most rewarding experiences Brooksville resident Mary Ann Kerr has ever had. She and her husband, Randy, are currently raising their fourth dog, Penny, for Southeastern.

The couple are also group leaders for the local guide dog group.

"When your puppy is matched, they invite you down to meet the person," Kerr said. "You think no one will ever love the puppy as much as you, but they do. These people tell you how the dog has given back their dignity and independence. It's amazing."

Kerr hopes local families will take more interest in becoming puppy raisers, along with local businesses that might want to consider sponsoring a dog.

Her only regret is that she didn't become a puppy raiser earlier, when her children were still living at home.

"You think it's something that you don't have time for, but, really, it's such a good learning lesson for the whole family," Kerr said. "It's wonderful to experience doing something for someone else."

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1432.

Fast Facts:

To learn more

For more information on Southeastern Guide Dogs, visit www.guidedogs.org or call (941) 729-5665 or toll-free at 1-800-944-DOGS (3647). Visit www.suncoastpup.org for more information on the local guide dog group.

[Last modified March 20, 2007, 00:03:46]


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