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Traynors make room for one more dog to help the blind

SPRING VALLEY--Companionship is the main reason the Michael Traynor family of Spring Valley has all five of its dogs, but there's another special reason they're working with one of the animals.

The Traynors have spent nearly a year informally training "Bella," a golden retriever, for the Leader Dogs for the Blind School in Rochester, Mich. They plan to return the dog to the school for more formal training late next month, according to Erin Traynor, a senior at Spring Valley High School.

That will be the hardest part because the family has become attached to their newest canine friend, she said Wednesday. But they've been through this process once before with "Jackson," also a golden retriever, and know what to expect.

"If I can say we raised this dog to do this job, then I feel better about having to give her up," she said.

Blind people who go to the school to get a guide dog don't have to pay for it, Claudia Traynor, Erin's mother, said. School personnel match the donated dogs with those who need them based on personalities. The present cost of creating each of these Leader Dog "teams" is approximately $28,000. Those who host the dogs as puppies aren't paid and stand all the normal expenses.

There's an application process for hosts to complete, soliciting such information as whether there are other dogs in the home and whether the surroundings are urban or rural, she said. Once accepted, applicants are put on a waiting list; the local family waited 17 months for Bella and six-to-seven months for Jackson. Support comes from a newsletter and monthly meetings for hosts in their areas (the Chippewa Valley area based in Eau Claire presently has 10 participants).

The Traynors' experiences with Bella have especially endeared her to them. The dog got a bladder infection while in their care, Mrs. Traynor said. Bella also broke her leg when she was three-months-old while playing with Jackson and needed surgery to mend it. The family was reimbursed for the $900-plus cost, but members still had to carry her outdoors to be on-leash, a requirement of the training, as she recuperated for eight weeks.

The prospective leader dog has emerged as number two in dominance among the Traynors' five, the daughter said. The others are "Kelly," a springer, plus "Darby" and "Cody," both shelties, besides Jackson (they got him back from the school after officials there rejected him due to having hip dysplasia).

"The males aren't as aggressive as the females," she said, admitting that's unusual.

Their mission as Bella's "puppy raisers" calls for her to listen and not be overly aggressive, she said. Socialization is important, so the dog's constantly been taken to public places, from stores to schools, since being housebroken. She has a cape and scarf to wear identifying her as part of the Leader Dog program, and people most everywhere have been understanding about admitting her indoors. Among the groups who particularly welcomed her was the Spring Valley Lions Club, to whom Traynor gave a talk about the training; Lions International is a major sponsor of the program.

Participants get guidelines when they pick up their charges in Michigan, she said, a 10-plus-hour trip one way. At that time, the pups are seven-weeks-old. They're not to be off-leash in public, except in enclosed areas, not to have people food nor rawhides and not to have certain toys. They're to be taught basic obedience and manners. They also must become accustomed to lots of traffic, noise, crowds, other animals, children, statues and the like.

"They should come back friendly and comfortable with being in different places," she said.

When a Leader Dog graduates after the formal training, which takes another five-to-nine months, the original owner/raiser is sent a photo of the team, she said. Hosts aren't encouraged to contact the blind person, but can respond if they're contacted by that person. If a dog fails training, it can still be used for breeding stock or is returned to the original owner, or placed in another good home.

Experienced in raising dogs

Although the Traynors have made Bella a family project, the SVHS student devotes the most time and energy to it, she said, while also crediting her boy friend, Dustin, for his help. She and her sisters have long had an interest in dogs: Hillary raised Cody and Katie raised Jackson.

Erin said she was involved in dog obedience through the Valley Eagles 4-H Club, which led her to the U.S. Dog Association. She met others with a similar interest, such as Penny Smith of Ellsworth, who encouraged her to try having a Leader Dog candidate. She went to dog shows as well, including the show at the Pierce County Fair and the state show.

"You had to show the judges your dog could heel on leash, sit, stay and come, perform figure-eights and go through other paces," she said.

Bella proved to be a challenge beyond her health issues, she said. When younger, the dog destroyed three rugs, along with chewing most of the furniture and a wall in the family's kitchen. Mrs. Traynor said they almost didn't get a second future Leader Dog due to reluctance by her husband, considering the attachment the family had to the first one, including himself. It took seeing a TV report on the Leader Dog program to finally convince him.

But her daughter has met the challenge, she said. Erin is trained as a certified nursing assistant and is now working at a local nursing home helping the elderly and disabled.

There's likely to be some sad eyes in the Traynor family when they part with Bella next month, even knowing the dog could someday serve in place of someone's eyes.