Friday, June 09, 2006

Teenager trains labrador puppy for the visually impaired

With her little button nose, puppy-dog eyes and floppy ears, Sweet Pea looks like a cuddly pet.But the dark blue bandana around her neck means she is all business.That’s how the 13-year-old Sarah Rankin is raising the black Labrador retriever puppy.“When she’s a working dog, she’ll have to wear a harness instead,” Rankin said, holding Sweet Pea’s leash at Somerset Drug Co. on Wednesday. Sarah, a seventh-grader from Listie, will spend a year socializing the 4-month-old puppy and teaching her basic commands.

The canine eventually will become a “leader dog” for the visually impaired.Sarah’s brother, David, and parents Paul and Debbie are doing their part, too.Leader Dogs for the Blind, a Rochester, Mich., based organization, trains dogs after volunteers help them adapt to working in the community. The group works with the support of Lions clubs across the country.

Sarah traveled in March to pick up Sweet Pea in Michigan, where there is a kennel so big it could house 300 dogs.A month later, she and her family began taking the dog to local businesses so the future leader dog can learn to handle social situations. Once a month, the family is visiting a puppy counselor who lives near Washington, Pa.“I got the idea watching a TV show, ‘Animal Adventures,’” Sarah said.

The family was considering adopting another pet to keep their dog, cat and rabbit company.“We decided to look into this first,” she said.After she studied a puppy manual from the Michigan organization and watched an instruction video, Sarah was ready. On Wednesday, Sarah and her mother, Debbie, took the pup for her fourth trip to Somerset Drug.“We come prepared,” Debbie Rankin said, carrying a canvas tote of plastic bags on her shoulder.

The employees there are glad to be part of the training, though it is difficult to resist petting Sweet Pea. When acting as a “professional” leader dog, Sweet Pea is supposed to avoid the affection normally showered on puppies.“The job they’re doing is important,” drug store administrator Amy Weimer said. “She has to go in public places to train.”Debbie Rankin said her daughter is a natural for working with animals.“We knew it would be a big responsibility, but animals are her gift,” she said.

Sarah has been riding horses at a farm in Berlin for about four years and is planning a career that will keep her close to animals: Horse racing.Bill Felix Jr., Boswell Lions secretary, has seen Sarah and her trainee in action at church.“Sarah is a regular trooper,” Felix said. “That dog goes wherever she goes.”

The Lions Club District 14M, which includes Somerset County, pairs dogs with people who need them and facilitates the puppy program.“I think she’s the first one we’ve had in Somerset County for a couple of years,” Felix said.People interested in more information can visit or can contact the chairwoman of the Lions Club’s dog program, Melinda Ogburn, at (724) 225-6985 or


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