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At the tender age of 2 months, Avalon left her family for boarding school in another state.
Avalon is a golden retriever and the boarding school is a puppy raiser's home in Papillion. Her destiny is to become a guide dog for someone who is visually impaired.
Until she is about 2 years old, Avalon will live with trainer Lynn Schense. Then Avalon will go back to where she was born, KSDS in Washington, Kan., a nonprofit that raises, trains and places service dogs.
This is the fifth service dog Schense has trained. The inevitable question: “How can you stand to give a dog up after two years?”
She smiles wistfully. Her answer tells you she's a special kind of person.
“You give them all your love and keep some of them in your heart.”
Heading up the long, tree-lined drive of the Schense's acreage, a visitor is greeted by two streaks of golden lightning as Avalon and her “sister” Ruthie race to be the first greeter.
Avalon, who at 11 months old is still just a big puppy, jumps up with feet wet from the pond.
“Down,” Schense commands.
Reluctantly Avalon stops jumping but her enthusiasm isn't diminished.
Sitting at an old picnic table, Schense talks about the five puppies she has raised and how she got into the business of training service dogs.
“I love dogs. It was one of those things I always wanted to do.”
After she quit working and her children were out on their own, she decided to give it a try. That was 2001 with her first dog Charlie.
This time is a bit different because Avalon will be a guide dog. The others were service dogs, trained more for people in wheelchairs or who have other physical handicaps. But Schense had always wanted to train a dog that would be a guide dog. After working with another agency for the first four dogs, she went through KSDS for Avalon.
Her job as a puppy raiser is to ensure the dog knows basic voice commands — under, over, up, down, up here, hurry up (which doesn't mean go faster but go to the bathroom) — and can do her job no matter what distractions crowds bring. Socialization is important; the dogs need to be comfortable around other people and animals.
Schense said she sometimes works with Avalon on specific training, but for the most part Avalon learns by doing.
“It isn't so much training classes, although there is a little of that. But it's a lifestyle,” Schense said. “I have to repeat that. It's a lifestyle.”
Although Science Diet provides free food for the dog during the training period, being a volunteer puppy raiser involves some costs. The raiser is responsible for such things as vet bills, including spaying or neutering and all shots, and grooming.
Avalon knows that when she wears her “service dog in training” cape, she is working, Schense said.
On a recent afternoon, the first stop was the Sarpy Community YMCA, where Schense talked to a group of preschoolers and Avalon sat quietly while the kids asked questions and asked permission to pet her.
“That is important,” Schense said to the kids. “You should always ask permission to pet someone's dog.”
Then it was on to Hy-Vee, where Avalon walked calmly, mostly ignoring the good smells and other temptations. At the bakery counter, Schense picked up a birthday cake for Ruthie.
Schense said Avalon doesn't like the grocery store. “She thinks it's boring.”
Avalon was on pretty good behavior until she decided she didn't want to move. She put on the brakes.
“Heel,” her trainer said.
Schense finally got her to move by offering treats.
She laughed and apologized for her puppy's behavior. She thinks Avalon has wised up to getting a treat if she balks.
Definitely an issue to work on.
With training trips done for the day, Schense took Avalon to a nearby lake where she was allowed to “just be a dog,” chasing sticks into the water.
Playtime is as important for Avalon as work time, Schense said.
“When the cape comes off, I'm still teaching her, but she can be a dog,” she said. “She's a normal dog that will grow up to be a very special dog.”
Every day is similar, she said, adding that she will take Avalon to restaurants, movie theaters, church, family outings and many other places.
Wherever they go, Schense said, each trip will be a learning experience for the dog.
Other things could affect Avalon's ability to be a good guide dog. She has one big hurdle to jump — she gets carsick. A lot. If that doesn't go away, it could keep her from graduating to guide dog. On that recent trip, the dog looked uncomfortable but didn't throw up. A good sign.
Schense reports on Avalon's progress each month.
Eventually, she will get “the call.” KSDS will tell her it's time to bring Avalon back to Kansas. The dog will be ready for the next step in her training, more specific lessons that will be specially designed for the individual needs of the person who will get her as a guide dog.
That will be a bittersweet day, Schense said. She and her husband will be brave and deliver Avalon — and then they will “bawl their eyes out” back in the car. They will attend her graduation and then probably never see her again.
It's all part of the job, and even though she understands and accepts the inevitable, it doesn't get easier.
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