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Puppy learns to be guide dog

Published: Friday, April 18, 2014 6:00 a.m. CDT
Caption
In this March 17, 2014 photo, 16-year-old Abbey Perkowitz attends an ACT prep class with 5-month-old Bailey, a service dog she is training at Grayslake Central High School in Grayslake. (AP Photo/Daily Herald, Steve Lundy)

GRAYSLAKE (AP) — At just 5 months old, Bailey is getting an education at Grayslake Central High School.

She has been attending an after-school ACT preparation class and other activities since January. However, unlike other pupils, she isn't learning from Grayslake Central's instructors.

Junior Abby Perkowitz is the teacher for Bailey, a black Labrador puppy starting to learn how to become a guide dog. Perkowitz said the school serves as a valuable training ground for the animal she received from the nonprofit Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester Hills, Mich. By Bob Susnjara.

"She learns how to act in crowds and she learns how to be invisible and sit there," said Perkowitz, who happened on Leader Dogs for the Blind with her family at the Indiana State Fair last year, completed an application and eventually gained approval as a puppy trainer.

Rod Haneline, chief programs and services officer at Leader Dogs for the Blind, said while it's common for teenagers to teach basic obedience and socialize puppies for 12 to 16 months before the animals are returned for intensive training, the setting is unlikely to be a high school.

"That's not normally what we see," Haneline said. "That's a great thing."

Bailey's route into Grayslake Central began when Perkowitz and her mother asked to meet Principal John Bolger. They were not specific about the topic before the meeting, but Bolger said he noticed Bailey bounding toward him when Perkowitz and her mom arrived — getting a quick lesson about guide dogs in the process.

"I made the biggest mistake you ever make with a working dog, right?" Bolger said. "I got down on the ground and I played with her. It's an absolutely irresistible animal. I mean, who in the world could possibly keep their hands off this gorgeous puppy? She's just such a love."

After the meeting, Bolger said, administrators received assurances Grayslake Central was clear of any potential liability problems before allowing Perkowitz to bring the puppy to the school in January. He said the arrangement with the dog has worked well so far.

Bailey also has become an educator of sorts, Bolger said, because students, teachers and others at Grayslake Central are learning firsthand about all that goes into a guide dog. He said the high level of responsibility a student is willing to take on to train the dog has been impressive.

"For the dog to be able to be in an authentic environment, there's an acclimation here that would have to take place," Bolger said. "And if you really think about it, how else is a seeing-eye dog ever going to have access (to a school)? And for a student to lead that way and know enough about the proper training of an animal to make that happen, we're just so proud of Abby and we're so proud of being a part of this process."

Perkowitz, 16, said she hopes to have Bailey in Grayslake Central for more than the twice-a-week ACT class and other after-school activities. She said the goal is to bring the dog with her to regular classes at least weekly before the academic season ends.

In the ACT preparation class, Bailey sits on a mat and typically chews a bone next to Perkowitz while Perkowitz takes practice tests. One of the instructors, Dan Armes, said the dog has yet to be a problem in the classroom.

"I thought at first the puppy would be doing something that could be a distraction, but I am pleasantly surprised that the kids are able to work without even realizing that (she) is there," Armes said.

Haneline said trainers such as Perkowitz lay a vital foundation before an animal enters the final leg of intensive guide dog instruction. He said awareness and self-control are major elements of the training.

Puppy-raisers meet monthly with a regional counselor who organizes obedience lessons and various public scenarios for the future guide dogs.

Strict rules must be followed by the raisers, including placement of a "Future Leader Dog" bandanna or jacket on the puppy when in public. In addition to staying off furniture, the puppies are expected to lie quietly at meal time and not beg.

Perkowitz is one of roughly 400 puppy trainers for Leader Dogs for the Blind in 22 states and Canada. When her work is finished after a year or so and Bailey is returned to the Michigan headquarters, the charity will provide the dog at no cost to a client who must complete a 26-day training program.

"I've always had animals in my life," said Perkowitz, whose family has fostered pets from a local facility. "Always, constantly going to the shelter, helping out there. I actually want to be a (veterinarian) when I grow up. And just being able to see how an animal can impact someone's life is amazing. I want to be part of helping someone."

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