Everett couple give puppies their first lessons to becoming guide dogs for the blind

EVERETT — Rebecca Minelga held a peach-scented candle up to the puppy’s nose.

The 15-week old yellow Labrador took a quick sniff but didn’t appear to be terribly interested. Minelga put the candle back on a shelf in the store and the pair continued on their first walk together through Everett Mall.

“A lot of times when we go on outings we’re looking for … the things that might distract them,” said Minelga, 28. “We want this to be really positive, especially since it’s her first time, so she’s not going to get corrected if she wants to sniff something.”

The puppy, named Rubina, drew attention around the food court from several curious onlookers during last week’s mall outing. She was walking Rubina to train the puppy to be a guide dog.

Minelga and her husband, Eric, of Everett, have volunteered for six years as puppy raisers for Puppy Guides of Snohomish County. The club raises puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind. The couple traveled to Tacoma on Jan. 8 to meet a truck that delivered Rubina and other puppies to their temporary homes.

At that time, they also said goodbye to Star, another yellow Labrador they raised, who was going back on the truck to continue her training at Guide Dogs for the Blind. The nonprofit organization has guide dog training campuses in San Rafael, Calif., and Boring, Ore.

The Minelgas started volunteering with Puppy Guides of Snohomish County after moving to the area seven years ago from Longview, Texas. Rebecca Minelga saw kids in a 4-H program at Evergreen State Fair showing the puppies they were raising as future guide dogs. She called Tawna Crispin, the leader of Puppy Guides of Snohomish County and asked to be an adult volunteer.

For months, the couple attended club meetings and puppy-sat for other club members before they started raising their first puppy, Sarita. Rubina is the fifth puppy they’ve trained.

Handlers typically work with the dogs for 14 to 16 months. They are responsible for housebreaking, teaching obedience commands and socializing the animals by taking them wherever they go — to work, grocery stores, malls, movie theaters, restaurants, sporting events and anywhere else someone might need to bring a working guide dog.

“We’ve taken dogs to Mariner games, to Pike Place Market, on ferries,” said Eric Minelga, 28. “It’s always fun to take them to the Mariner games because you have a built in foot warmer when they curl up by your feet.”

Raising a puppy that could one day help someone who is blind is easier than it looks, Rebecca Minelga said.

“It becomes a part of your lifestyle,” she said. “These guys go everywhere, so it becomes even easier to train them.”

Crispin, 35, started raising puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind in high school as a senior project. She currently is raising Viviane, the 22nd puppy she has trained. Being part of the club is a way for her four children to also volunteer.

“Volunteering for them is a way of life,” Crispin said. “It’s something we do every day.”

Saying goodbye to the puppies they raise is bittersweet.

There are tears when the time comes, Minelga admitted. She and her husband receive updates on the dogs when they go through their additional training, and are invited to attend graduation ceremonies.

The couple attended a graduation ceremony in May in Boring, Ore. for Roxanne, the third dog they raised. She went to Steve Bayly of Whistler, B.C., who is almost completely blind.

Roxanne will be 3 years old in August, said Bayly, 57. She is the first guide dog he has owned and she helps him keep his independence, Bayly said. Plus, she’s fun to take fishing.

“When we go fishing she watches the rods and gets excited when they move,” he said. “She’s a guide but she’s also a fisher.”

Bayly stays in contact with the Minelgas to let them know how he and Roxanne are doing.

It’s a happy moment, Minelga said, when a puppy’s raiser is able to attend a graduation for the dog and present them to someone who needs their help.

“When you get to graduation and see that partnership that they make, there isn’t a single part of you that would ever think about taking that dog back because you would be taking away that future and that potential for that person,” Minelga said.

Amy Daybert: 425-339-3491; adaybert@heraldnet.com.

How to volunteer

Puppy Guides of Snohomish County, a puppy raising club for Guide Dogs for the Blind, meets at 6 p.m. on the second and fourth Sundays of the month at Mays Pond Club House, 17800 Brook Blvd. in Bothell.

Volunteers are also available to speak to organizations about puppy raising opportunities. For more information, go to www.puppyguides.com.

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