Orange County Register, California.
Sunday, July 16, 2006.
Young O.C. guide-dog trainer longs to get back her Labrador retriever Butterscotch. But 14-year-olds don't qualify for guide dogs, even if they instruct them.
CAPTION: "SHE'S SO SWEET": Laura DeHart, 14, hugs Butterscotch after a training session at Tri City Park in preparation for guide-dog school. JEBB HARRIS,
Guide Dogs for the Blind: 800-295-4050 or
She gave her dog away last December.
Since then, she's been trying to get Butterscotch back.
Laura DeHart was only meant to have the puppy for 18 months. She was supposed to raise her and teach her to sit and obey - all the skills Butterscotch would need to go to school to be a guide dog for the visually impaired.
DeHart, 14, who battles an eye disease herself, has raised three dogs for the program. Every 18 months she is issued a new one, like textbooks for each grade in school.
She is the only visually impaired child in Orange County to train guide dogs, and one of fewer than 10 in the country. Too young to have a dog of her own - because she has heard of no United States guide dog school that gives them to kids younger than 16 - she has trained them for other people.
But she couldn't so easily let go of the yellow Labrador named Butterscotch.
Butterscotch matched her walking speed, wasn't too big or too strong. Butterscotch let her paint her toenails and curled up with her to watch "Animal Planet." She was the perfect dog.
DeHart knew that she wanted Butterscotch as her guide, and she couldn't let the rules stop her.
DeHart, 14, has familial exudative vitreoretinopathy, a disease that allows her to see up to 10 feet ahead, but only out of the corners of her eyes.
The Placentia girl can't do things that most kids do.
She could never join a soccer team because if she gets bumped or pushed, her retina could detach. She stopped taking dance classes because she was embarrassed when her instructor had to come close to her and teach her step by step. She played piano but couldn't read the notes and grew tired of the hours of practice it took to memorize them.
But she's always loved dogs.
So when she found out about guide dog raising, she immediately contacted the Orange County group Paws for Independence. Members raise dogs until they are 18 months old and can pass an obedience test. That's when they are ready for training classes at Guide Dogs for the Blind, based in San Rafael.
But the club's director wasn't sure at first.
For about nine months, DeHart took classes on handling and socializing puppies and teaching commands. She dog-sat other people's dogs, and club leaders watched her with her own pets.
"We watched the way she interacted with the animals, and with parental support it wasn't a problem," said Paws for Independence director Chris Sobchick. "She went through the training just like everyone else."
DeHart has spent nearly four years training guide dogs.
Javelin was her first puppy. With him, she learned the basics.
When Javelin was 2 months old, DeHart used a timer so she could remember to take him outside for bathroom breaks every half hour. At 3 months, she started teaching him his name and to sit on command.
At 6 months, she taught the dog basic lessons - to stop licking people, how to stay calm at the mall or at a visit to McDonald's and how to sit and eat on command.
At 18 months, the dog was ready for guide dog training, and DeHart gave him away.
After Javelin came Butterscotch.
With Butterscotch, Laura knew the ropes, and this time their bond was closer.
Passing months have worn off the rough edges until all that's left is a perfect memory.
"I knew she was an angel when I brought her home with me," DeHart said. "She never did anything wrong."
She remembers that Butterscotch would let her dress her in outfits - a faux fur coat, a raincoat, pink pajamas.
She remembers how Butterscotch came up and nuzzled her when she brought out her beanbag chair to watch TV.
She remembers taking her to school, where many students came up to pet the puppy and talk to Laura for the first time. Butterscotch made her feel less lonely, braver, she said.
She remembers Butterscotch waddling down a Tuffree Middle School hall in jean shorts and a T-shirt on "twin" day.
"Laura became more confident," said her mother, Louise. "She had a companion."
All of those memories pushed at the back of her eyes and threatened to come out the December night she had to give up Butterscotch.
She bit down hard, trying to enjoy a party held by the puppy-raisers group at Eastside Christian Church. Her parents were out in the parking lot, preparing their car for a trip to San Rafael, to drop off Butterscotch for guide dog training.
DeHart tried to remember it was holiday time. And she'd still have her new puppy, Santo, for the next year and a half and another dog after that. She held Santo tight.
But that didn't keep the tears from welling up - not that day. It only got harder when her parents came in to tell her it was time to say goodbye.
DeHart found her way to the van, aided by friends in the club, and handed Santo to her mom.
She hopped in the back seat. Butterscotch sat at her feet.
She could make out the outline of Butterscotch's face, but DeHart's eyes were never able to focus on a dog's expression.
DeHart trained Butterscotch according to all the rules of the guide dog volunteer group - no treats, no toy balls, no letting her inanely sniff the ground, a habit Butterscotch was never truly able to break, and no silly tricks like shaking hands or giving a high five.
But that night, DeHart broke one rule - she taught Butterscotch to stand on her hind legs and wrap her paws around her in a hug.
"Butterscotch, paws up," she said, motioning upward. The dog rose up with her front paws outstretched over the car seat.
That's when everything DeHart had been holding in that day finally let go.
She cried for hours, as she hugged her parents goodbye, as they drove away with the dog in the back seat and as Butterscotch faded into nothing more than a tiny dot in the back window. DeHart knew she had lost her best friend.
DeHart sent off an application to Guide Dogs in February to see if she could break the rules once more and get Butterscotch when she finished with her training in San Rafael.
Laura knew she had only the tiniest shot since she wouldn't be 16 for another year and a half, plus the guide dog school carefully matches a dog with the blind person and has never allowed someone to request a certain dog.
But after months of mobility training with a cane, a two-day evaluation with Butterscotch in San Rafael and weeks of waiting for word, Butterscotch is back at home.
"We've never done this before, but we proceeded with all the normal steps," Butterscotch's trainer Jeff Grey said. "We knew that Butterscotch has an especially happy and calm personality and that Laura raised her. It required a lot of family support. All these things came together."
The dog's ears perked up and her body shook with anticipation when she walked through the door, Grey said.
DeHart and Butterscotch spent three weeks learning an exercise route through DeHart's neighborhood, the way around school, how to take the bus to downtown Fullerton and to the library.
They've picked up where they left off. The dog still wears the scarves that were part of her old wardrobe. They play their old game of tug of war on the stairs, go swimming in the back yard and cuddle on DeHart's leopard beanbag.
On Saturday, DeHart graduated from the program, and Butterscotch officially became her guide.
DeHart hasn't gotten the chance yet - being so busy with the training - but she knows that when tells Butterscotch "paws up" and motions for the dog to stand up on its hind legs and give her a hug, Butterscotch will know how.
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