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Guide dog training leads to scholarship

With help from her family, Jesuit alum trained six puppies for visually impaired


by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Blaise Wittenauer-Lee of Cedar Mill hugs Alberta, a black Labrador. Wittenauer-Lee and her family have helped train several puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind. When Blaise Wittenauer-Lee pauses to consider what motivated her to train guide dogs for the visually impaired, it quickly becomes apparent that the vocation pretty much chose her.

Some indications?

The 19-year-old’s great-grandfather was blind. She considers her own eyesight “really bad.” Blaise’s mother, Peggy, learned about guide dogs when a blind woman came to speak in her college class. Nancy Pruitt, a family friend, is involved with Sightmasters, a Washington County group devoted to raising guide dogs.

And of course, Blaise, a 2013 Jesuit High School graduate, has liked animals since she was a tyke.

“Growing up, we always had pets,” Blaise said from the kitchen of her family’s Cedar Mill house. “We had a dog, a golden retriever. We’d breed them and have a litter at the house.”

The upshot of all those influences and motivation led to a legacy of six: Manny, Chantilly, Wanda, Alberta, Kiran and Delia. They are the guide dogs for the blind that Blaise, with the help of Peggy, her dad and her four siblings trained at home since she was 11 years old.

“Raising (guide dogs) has been a fun way to have a dog,” she admitted.

With Delia, the puppy she raised most recently, “graduated” and about to be paired with a full-time partner, and Blaise preparing to start next month at Seattle University, her dog-training ambitions are, for now, on hold. Her years of devotion, however, are not going unrecognized.

Guide Dogs for the Blind, the largest guide dog school in the United States, awarded Blaise a $600 scholarship for her scholastic achievements in high school and her commitment to community service. The San Rafael, Calif.-based guide dog school, which has a second campus nearby in Boring, recognized Blaise for providing the puppies a “well-rounded, socialized and nurturing environment that will prepare them for future service to a visually impaired person.”

The right fit

Blaise is one of four high school seniors to whom the organization granted scholarships this year. The teens are considered based on their volunteerism with Guide Dogs, how the experience has helped their personal development, as well as through recommendations from others.

Blaise wrote a three-page essay reflecting on her training experience, creating a video and photo montage in the process.

“Basically, I’ve been responsible for teaching the puppies good house manners and basic obedience, and most importantly, socializing them to the world,” Blaise told Guide Dogs officials. “It’s so rewarding to know that I’m helping a blind person get the most out of life while enjoying these sweet puppies while they’re growing up.”

She enjoyed being able to catch up with her training experiences.

“That’s probably my favorite part of it,” she said on Monday. “There are so many pictures. It’s cool looking back on that. At the very end of my high school career, it’s really fun to see how far I’ve come.”

Blaise got her training feet wet through Pruitt and the nonprofit Sightmasters, which raises puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind’s Boring campus.

“Nancy has raised 20-some guide dogs,” she said. “You go to meetings, meet families with guide dogs and puppy sit. There’s a puppy manual, a go-to guide. I got into it slowly.”

Well-rounded hounds

Acclimating the dogs to modern life in all its forms is a big part of the process.

“Our main goal as raisers is to get them experience with as many different situations out in the real world as possible,” she said. “We would take them everywhere: to church, the mall, swim meets, camping, so they could be pretty much ready for anything.”

Although Blaise was in charge, the guide dog training was certainly a family affair. “Mom would watch the dogs while I was at school,” she said. “On days she was at work, (the dog) went with dad at his job. It’s just like a whole system we have.”

Blaise’s mom, Peggy, a nurse practitioner at Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center and a Spanish teacher at St. Pius X Catholic Church, said instilling discipline and focus is a key element.

“A lot of it is helping the animal not to be distracted, to not be afraid of cars and sounds and picking food up off the floors,” she noted. “You get a lot of support from the club.”

Sometimes the dog isn’t ideally suited for the role, which requires qualities such as strong obedience and low distractibility. Her first puppy, Manny, became a “career change” puppy.

“We raised him for four months, but he didn’t really fit the mold of a guide dog,” Blaise said. “He’s living with a family in Aloha.”

Lending a hand

Based on Blaise’s academic and extracurricular record, the six dogs she trained will be well prepared to assist their new companions.

A standout swimmer at Jesuit, Blaise received the Oregon School Activities Association Award of Excellence for high school swimming. She’s a member of the National Honor Society and worked for a woman’s shelter for her Christian Service Project at school. In addition to her Guide Dogs for the Blind award, Blaise earned academic as well as athletic scholarships at Seattle University, where she plans to study biology and follow a pre-medical school path.

“I’d like to become a doctor,” she said. “My interests may change, but that’s what I feel right now. I want to continue helping people, especially with guide dogs. I learned I want to be involved with people and service. Pre-med, I hope can help me do that.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Blaise Wittenauer-Lee of Cedar Mill walks Alberta, a black Labrador, which her family initially raised as a guide dog but now is the family pet. Wittenauer-Lee recently was awarded a $600 scholarship for her scholastic achievements and her commitment to community service with Guide Dogs for the Blind.

Guide dog training opportunities abound

Guide Dogs for the Blind provides enhanced mobility to qualified individuals through partnership with dogs whose unique skills are developed and nurtured by dedicated volunteers and a professional staff.

Headquartered in San Rafael, Calif., with a secondary campus in Boring, the school has graduated more than 12,500 teams since its founding in 1942.

With 900 puppies needing raiser homes every year, puppy raisers are a critical part of producing highly trained guide dogs, school officials said. Guide Dogs for the Blind offers a comprehensive puppy raising manual, organized training and socialization, as well as staff that offer problem solving solutions for the pups and their raisers.

To become a volunteer puppy raiser, contact Guide Dogs for the Blind by visiting guidedogs.com/site/PageServer or call the Boring campus at 503-668-2100.