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Everyday Heroes: Basic training for seeing-eye dogs

Nancy Prewitt trains a guide-dog puppy for a year through the Beaverton-based Sightmasters puppy raising club. (KATU Photo)

Thirty years ago Nancy Prewitt started volunteering her time by training guide dogs for the blind.

It’s a painstaking process that takes an entire year, but for Nancy, and those who get the guide dogs, the benefits last a lifetime.

And before they even take a step with their blind partners, guide-dog puppies spend a year with trainers, who teach them the skills they’ll need to guide the blind and visually impaired.

Nancy says those skills include basic obedience.

“They get to play and have their toys – things like that – but they can’t scream around the house and knock people over,” Nancy says. “I think we do a better job of making well-behaved dogs than the average person – not saying that everybody doesn’t do a good job, but we have more rules, I think, than the average person.”

Nancy got involved with the program through the Beaverton-based Sightmasters puppy raising club when her daughter asked her for a dog. She was at first hesitant, but her mother had a suggestion for her.

“She said we could get a dog for a year and see how it goes. So now we’ve had 26 dogs,” she says.

All of the dogs that Nancy trains are labs and golden retrievers. Nancy says they’re the preferred breeds for guide dog training because of their size and temperament. And their cuteness.

“You love them – who couldn’t love a little puppy – and then you know you’re doing it for a good cause. You love them, but you want them to help somebody else,” she says.

Besides obedience, the puppies have to be trained on how to handle themselves in public. That’s why state law allows puppies in training to have the same access as guide dogs and other service dogs in public places.

“So we get to take them to restaurants and grocery stores, on the MAX, on the buses,” says Nancy.

Which can be a hard job for a puppy.

“The first time they hopefully sleep under the table,” Nancy says, “but we usually wait until they’re 5 or 6 months old, so we know how they’re going to react, usually.”

The hardest job for Nancy is giving the pup up after a year. But she’s found the perfect solution.

“I get a new puppy right away,” she says. “So you’ve got a new puppy to love, and then that puppy is being well-loved and well taken care of at guide dogs and is going to go on and make somebody a wonderful guide.”

When the dogs are ready to enter guide dog training, Nancy works with its new owner, detailing its temperament and quirks.

When she’s not training the pups, Nancy takes them to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital or bowling with visually impaired children.

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