FEBRUARY 10, 1997
Susan Barbitta of Woodinville and Joe, the guide dog puppy in training.
Photo by Deborah Stone.
by Deborah Stone
You might see her in and around Woodinville, wearing a green jacket with tattoos in both ears, frequenting restaurants, shops, schools, libraries, and other public places. When she's working, she's not allowed to play, so please let her perform her job without much ado. Her business is learning to be a guide dog for the blind.
She is three-month-old Joetta, a Golden Lab puppy who belongs to the Barbitta family of Woodinville. Joe, as she is called, was sent to the Barbittas about one month ago from Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, California. She will stay with the Barbitta family until the spring of 1998 when she will return to San Rafael for further training, and if she succeeds and passes the necessary tests, she will then become a full-fledged guide dog.
During her stay with the Barbittas, she needs to become well-socialized and exposed to many conditions, situations, people, and other animals, in addition to learning various commands and behaviors. Susan Barbitta and her thirteen-year-old daughter Jackie are the co-trainers and must take Joe to monthly puppy guide dog obedience classes sponsored by 4H, attend a once-a-month outing with other guide dog puppies sponsored by Puppy Power of Kirkland, and promise to socialize Joe at least three times a week in a variety of public places. In addition, they need to work with her at home to solidify the commands taught in the classes and provide her with much love and encouragement.
"It's a lot of hard work," says Susan, "and our whole family has to chip in and help, but we made the decision to do this because we wanted to help in a meaningful way." She adds, "It's so important for our kids (ages, 6, 10, and 13) to be involved with community service and experience the rewards of doing something for someone else."
Although this is their first time training a guide dog, the Barbittas, who recently moved to Woodinville from North Carolina, have a three-year-old German shepherd, Noble, who they trained to be a service dog. He is able to go to such places as hospitals, nursing homes, and residential schools to provide a therapeutic presence for both children and seniors.
This all happened by accident and began when Susan took Noble to see her grandma, who was in a nursing home. She and the staff at the nursing home noticed the effects his presence had on the older people. Many would often open up and begin talking, initially using the dog as a focal point of the conversation, but then moving on to other topics as they became more comfortable. Noble seemed to alleviate stress and provide a warmth to the environment.
Susan soon joined Therapy Dogs International to learn more about service dogs. The idea to train a guide dog interested her after she saw a blind person with a guide dog in a grocery store and was in awe of the skills of the dog and the importance of it to its owner. In researching guide dogs, she learned that the demand for puppy trainers far exceeds the supply.
To become a trainer, individuals must apply, go through a rigorous interview process, have a fenced yard or run, agree to attend all classes and meetings, be willing to work with the dog at home, and socialize him/her often. Trainers are responsible for the cost of feeding the dog and for some veterinary care. The entire cost incurred to train a guide dog from birth to two-and-a-half years old is $22,000. The blind person who eventually receives the dog does not incur any part of the cost. Suitable purebred breeds for guide dogs are yellow and black Labs and golden retrievers.
Susan and her family need to keep reminding themselves of why they have Joe and the wonderful role she will eventually play. This is because they are already attached to her and know it will be very difficult when they must separate next year. However, Susan says, "In a real sense, we will be giving Joe her freedom and the opportunity to be a vital and necesary part of someone's life."
The puppy has adapted well to her Woodinville family and adores Noble and Demon Deacon, the Barbitta's new kitten. It is obvious she is surrounded by love and is already on her way to being successful in her training endeavors. In April, she will go to school with Jackie one day a week at Leota Junior High. "It is important that Joe learns to sit for long periods of time," says Susan.
Recently, Puppy Power's group outing of the month was to the Thunderbirds hockey game. Fifteen guide dog puppies in their green jackets were in attendance and according to Susan, the dogs did well overall. "It is important for the dogs to be out and about, not only for their training, but also because it helps to raise awareness in the community," says Susan.
For more information on training a guide dog puppy, call Claudia Adams of Puppy Power at 823-6058.