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Time is short, but bonds go deep as North Bend's Gene Grantham trains guide dogs for the blind | Photo Gallery
Gene Grantham knew the plan all along. He was going to bring home a 3-month-old puppy, house-break it, train it, love it, and more than a year later, hand the leash over to a Guide Dogs for the Blind trainer and eventually, the pup’s new owner.
It would be fun to have a puppy, he figured, and a lot easier now that he was retired. It would also be rewarding to help out someone who needed a guide dog. But it was not supposed to be so hard.
A sound that’s part sigh, part groan and part laugh is the North Bend man’s answer to how he felt on September 14, to be reunited with his former puppy, Ethan, watch him graduate as a guide dog and then meet his new owner.
“Ethan is the only one I’ve had to give up,” Grantham said. The first “puppy” he volunteered to raise is 2-year-old Vinnie, curled up on the couch next to him, and the third, 3-month-old Zeni, is gently snoring on his lap. Vinnie didn’t make it through guide dog training so Grantham adopted him, and Zeni is about a year away from being “recalled” for the specialized training.
The right temperament
Zeni, a coal-black Lab with soulful eyes, was still a little wobbly on her feet when Grantham brought her home just days earlier, too small to go many places, and too young for anything but the basics — house-breaking.
“No, they don’t know that, when we get them,” Grantham said, “but she’s getting the idea,” he said, as Zeni stretched and yawned, then snuggled further under his arm.
She’ll also learn a handful of commands, he says. “They’ll learn sit down, come, stay, and let’s go … walking on a loose leash, that’s important, but being well socialized, that’s probably about half of it.”
Soon, she’ll be joining Grantham on frequent trips to the library, coffee shops, restaurants, and stores for that socialization, and to help Guide Dogs evaluate her natural abilities.
“They have to have the right temperament,” Grantham explained, so puppy raisers like himself pay attention to each dog’s behavior, and report their progress at periodic evaluations. A dog that gets too excited around people and jumps up, or gets scared, would not be helpful to a disabled person, and so is not a good candidate for training.
Grantham is extremely impressed with the 70-year-old Guide Dogs for the Blind breeding program, which produces dogs with the calm and confident personalities needed for service, and connects them with volunteers who want to help cement the dog-human bond, either as puppy cuddlers, soon after they’re born, or as puppy raisers like himself.
Fewer than half of all dogs in the program, though, are selected for the training, he said, at the rate of about half of all labs, a third of all retrievers, and three or four times more females than males.
Vinnie, the friendly yellow Lab who’s been acting sulky since Zeni came out of her training crate, wasn’t quite confident enough as a puppy and wasn’t selected for the training. Ethan almost didn’t make it to training, either, but for different reasons.
“Ethan was a gorgeous dog!” Grantham said, “He zoomed through (early) training like a rock star! He was doing so well, they said, ‘We want him in our breeding program.’”
If it weren’t for a slight heart defect that the breeding veterinarians noticed when he came to the program, that’s where Ethan would be today. Instead, he’s in Florida, helping attorney William Osbourne (Grantham and everybody else calls him Ozzie) navigate daily life.
It was so difficult for Grantham to say good-bye to Ethan — when the dog saw him again after five months away in training, he broke all his training and jumped up onto Grantham’s lap — that he took some time off from the puppy raising business.
If he’d decided not to try it again, he would have been a fairly typical volunteer, and member of his Issaquah-based Eager Eye puppy club. “The majority of the people end up with one of them as a pet,” he said, and “some people won’t do it, because they think it will be too hard,” either to train a new puppy, or to give the puppy up a year later.
But Grantham had been through all that, and knew he could do it. A few months ago, he wanted to know something else. “I wonder if I could raise another dog as good as Ethan?” he thought. He signed up to find out, this time asking for his first female puppy to raise.
As Zeni slid into deeper sleep, Vinnie scooted closer to his owner on the couch, apparently deciding it was time to stake his claim. The doggie tension in the house this time is new, Grantham says, since Vinnie and Ethan got along from the start.
Ethan wasn’t perfect, though, he admits. Laughing, he listed some of the things the puppy destroyed when his teeth came in; no shoes, but a couple of belts, a watch, and “I had a library book I was reading, on dog training, and he took a few pages out of that!”
Learn more about Guide Dogs for the Blind and its puppy raising programs at guidedogs.com.
Vinnie, an adopted guide dog, now a pet, gets up close with owner Gene Grantham. Below is his new guide-dog-pup in training, Zeni.
Gene Grantham, right, with his dog, Ethan, after graduating from guide dog training, and Ethan’s new owner, William Osborne, left.
Vinnie, Grantham’s first puppy raised for Guide Dogs for the Blind, searches the new puppy’s crate for food or toys.
Three-month-old Zeni will spend the next year with Grantham and Vinnie, becoming socialized and, if good enough, advancing to a five-month training program to become a guide dog.