January 22, 2006.
Contra Costa Times - CA,USA.
Nearly half the passengers on the bus didn't have a clue how to ask for directions or even pay a fare.
But those were details for someone else to worry about -- these travelers were on business preparing for a more important mission.
One by one, the parade of young Labrador retrievers boarded a Tri Delta Transit bus earlier this week in yet another training exercise.
"(Give) lots of praise when your puppy does well," Marikay Batina reminded handlers as they mounted the steps on the heels of the 13 animals destined to become someone's passport to freedom.
The assistant leader of Contra Costa East Guide Dog Raisers, Batina has been grooming puppies for their life's work since 1998.
The Antioch resident and other members of the group serve as foster parents for puppies born and bred on the San Rafael campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind Inc.
These volunteers take the dogs in at eight weeks and spend about the next 18 months teaching them basic obedience as well as acquainting them with the world of people.
That means taking the puppies everywhere that people go: offices, shopping malls, churches, movie theaters and restaurants as well as on planes, trains and automobiles.
Brentwood resident Mike Deimling watches his neighbor's 11-month-old Lab when she can't, and at Christmas he took Odessa to San Francisco's Union Square to habituate her to crowds.
Batina has taken the Australian shepherd in her care -- the 11th guide dog she's trained -- to shopping center parking lots, funerals and the symphony.
The idea is to expose Redford to new things such as vehicles suddenly pulling into his path, unfamiliar smells or sudden noises like bursts of applause and percussion, she said.
The dog also visited livestock exhibits at the county fair, reasoning that the experience could be beneficial if he ends up in a rural area.
"He wasn't too sure about the sheep," Batina laughed, recalling how the 13-month-old gingerly poked its nose into the pen to get a better whiff of the woolly curiosities.
Acclimating the dogs to public transportation like BART and buses is equally important because the blind depend so heavily on these forms of transportation, she added.
Inexperienced dogs might be intimidated by the size, noise and smells of buses, Batina said, and an unpleasant memory can cause unpredictable behavior.
"You're setting the dog up to have a fear reaction," Batina said. "The dog would jump away (or) hesitate boarding the bus."
Once raisers have finished their training, they return the dogs to San Rafael, where professionals continue the conditioning for five to nine months before matching them with someone who needs a pair of eyes.
For the time being, however, Batina's pack of puppies-in-training are still learning the do's and don'ts of traveling on public transit.
"What is the command we give to properly position the dog?" she asked as handlers settled in for the ride.
"Puppy kennel!" they chimed in unison.
The answer is code for putting one's dog in a confined space -- under a seat on a bus, for example -- and tucking in paws and wagging tails so other passengers don't trip over them.
As the bus begins to move, a tidy row of heads and noses poked out from the storage spaces.
Some of the older dogs looked bored and rested heads on paws for a quick snooze.
Minutes into the ride, however, others succumbed to the temptation to play.
A couple of yellow Labs began canoodling, clearly more interested in getting to know each other than absorbing the sensory experience.
"They get distracted by their classmates," Batina said. "They think it's recess."
An exception was 4-month-old Giovanna, the youngest of the lot.
The Lab lay demurely between her handler's legs, a small black bundle with soulful eyes and a shining coat that whispered "pet me, pet me."
Although the puppy had never been on a bus before, the vibrations and engine noise didn't faze her.
Relinquishing the dogs is never easy, Batina acknowledges, but remembering what they will be giving someone else makes the good-byes sweeter.
"You can't put a price on that," she said.
Reach Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
TO LEARN MORE
People interested in raising a guide dog are welcome to attend the weekly gatherings of Contra Costa East Guide Dog Raisers.
Meetings are from 7 to 8 or 8:30 p.m. on the first, second and fourth Wednesdays of the month in the gymnasium at Oakley Elementary School, 501 Norcross Lane, Oakley.
On the third Wednesdays, puppies go public, visiting venues such as shopping malls and restaurants, riding elevators, crossing busy streets, and going to police and fire stations to get used to emergency vehicles' lights and sirens.
For more information, call Mark Ruefenacht at 925-798-8998 or Guide Dogs for the Blind Inc. at 800-295-4050.
You also can visit www.guidedogs.com.
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