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A most rewarding task

Wilsonville youth becomes the second in his family to train a guide dog for the blind


by: PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARABIA FAMILY - Cole Arabia and his sister, Kelsi, are shown here with Gabriel, a Labrador retriever that Cole helped train to become a guide dog for the blind. It is probably the most rewarding job undertaken by Cole Arabia during his 12 years on earth.

With the completion of that task, he was able to give the gift of sight to a wheelchair-bound California man.

The Wilsonville youth and Wood Middle School student recently watched his former puppy, Gabriel, graduate from his initial training as a service dog, in this case as a daily companion and guide for the blind.

The training took more than a year to complete. And once it was finished it proved to be somewhat bittersweet for the Arabia family, which recently relocated to Oregon from the California Bay Area.

“When I saw him the last time it was the hardest, for sure,” said Cole, who formally handed off Gabriel to a disabled Davis, Calif., man named Andy Roberts following the Jan. 25 graduation ceremony in San Rafael.

San Rafael is the home of Guide Dogs for the Blind, a national organization founded in 1942 to help wounded servicemen. It now works with a large network of smaller local groups that place guide dog candidates with families for initial obedience training and socialization.

As a national group, its training and certification has become recognized as a gold seal of sorts on the dogs it places with disabled individuals. Guide Dogs also has a second facility in Boring in east Clackamas County, where it serves clients in the Pacific Northwest. Both facilities also breed the Labrador and golden retrievers trained by the program.

The Arabias first were introduced to Guide Dogs for the Blind in the mid-1990s after witnessing a dog being trained in public. They asked about the program and soon after their son Patrick, then 10, was raising and training a tiny yellow Labrador retriever.

Middle son Cole now is doing the same, while his younger sister, Kelsi, plans to follow in her older brothers’ footsteps in the future.

“With guide dog puppies, nobody can ever have a puppy unless they have been trained with the program first,” said Kim Arabia, the children's mother. “It’s more about knowing what not to do with them. With the blind, they can’t see, and there are so many extra things the guide dog has to know to protect that person. Sight is huge, which is why this program makes it so hard for a dog to pass.”

For Cole and his family, the process kicked off in the Bay Area back in the fall of 2012. The family first maneuvered its way through the lengthy process required to receive a new puppy, which included interviews, a home visit and other vetting. They then began working with a training group called Pawsabilities.

While Cole had primary responsibility for Gabriel as a puppy, the entire family naturally was involved. And while the family might be responsible for training, veterinary bills and other costs — everything except for food — is paid for by Guide Dogs for the Blind.

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARABIA FAMILY - The Arabia family gathers around Andy Roberts, Davis, Calif., who is almost totally blind, following the graduation of Gabriel, a guide dog trained by 12-year-old Cole Arabia. Gabriel now lives with Roberts. “He was the primary raiser, he did about 90 percent of the training,” said Kim Arabia. “My goal was to have all three of my children raise a guide dog. My oldest son (Patrick) is 29, and he did one in 1995, so my goal is to have all three of them do it.”

The family welcomed Gabriel into its home in September 2012. The puppy was just 10 weeks old at the time and the initial obedience training was as basic as teaching him to sit, come when called and other standard tasks laid out in standard Guide Dogs for the Blind curriculum.

“We just decided as a family and we contacted the local group and we had to talk to them about it,” said Kim Arabia.

“You have to go for at least a month before you get a dog,” added Cole.

“They’re very particular about protecting the dogs,” Kim said, “and that’s really great.”

Small details such as potentially poisonous plants, nails in the yard and other easily overlooked hazards are sought out and eliminated.

“The biggest thing is a fenced-in yard,” said Kim Arabia. “Escapes are the biggest concern, so we basically took Gabriel with us everywhere.”

That worked well, largely because it also is the job of the host family to socialize the new guide dog and get it used to working in public, in crowds of people and around temptations such as food or other dogs. The Arabias even took Gabriel to a Mythbusters exhibit, complete with its explosions, lights and other action.

“The only thing is we didn’t take him on a plane,” Cole said. “We took him on light rail, the bus, train, we took him to grocery stores, we took him to Costco.”

About the only places guide dog candidates aren’t allowed to go, ironically, are dog parks, where other dogs may interfere with their training.

Meanwhile, when they’re back home, a would-be guide dog isn’t even allowed to sleep with a blanket, lest the Labrador or golden retriever consume the item in a fit of overenthusiastic hunger. It has happened enough in the past that the group now bans its puppy raisers from using anything more than a crate for sleeping accommodation.

“There’s a lot to remember,” said Kim Arabia. “He crate trained well, and you have to teach them to potty on command. Once they’re older, they can only go on command, because if they’re with a blind person and the dog goes and the person can’t see to pick it up, it can be quite a mess.”

Despite many chances to wash out of the program — by some estimates not more than 60 percent of dogs who start guide dog training are able to finish — Gabriel made it through all the way to graduation.

“He was a really good dog,” Cole said. “He liked pleasing anybody.”

About halfway through the training process, however, Gabriel went to live with a second trainer, a common occurrence in the world of guide dogs. It was difficult for the family, but the move was made easier by knowing they would one day see Gabriel again. In addition, the swap closely coincided with the family’s move to Oregon, where they were attracted to the neighborhoods, schools and livability of Wilsonville.

“The question we get asked the most is, ‘How can you give up the puppy?’" Kim Arabia said. “And it is the hardest part of the experience. We do our best to prepare ourselves ahead of time and remind ourselves that we are just part of the puppy’s journey. We are doing it for a good cause and it makes it well worth it.”

For more information about Guide Dogs for the Blind, visit guidedogs.com.


By Josh Kulla
Assistant Editor / Photographer
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