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Volunteer turns pups into Leader Dogs

Linda Britton takes Dusty on a walk through downtown Clarkston. Photo by Andrea Beaudoin (click for larger version)
September 25, 2013 - Dusty, a six month old puppy, sits patiently at a light in downtown Clarkston.

The young pup is being trained by Clarkston resident Linda Britton to someday serve as a leader dog for the blind.

Britton takes Dusty down city streets, to schools, restaurants, grocery stores and any other places people go in daily life.

"We have also been riding in elevators and we have gone to the fire station," she said. "I take them to schools because he has to learn how to be around children and remain calm. He has to learn how to handle noises and kids running around."

Dusty is learning how to be patient.

Britton said she recently took Dusty into a local restaurant and as they were leaving another customer saw Dusty and remarked how shocked she was a dog was there.

"She didn't even see him because he was so quiet, she said. "He is learning to be invisible at places like restaurants."

Britton said when people see a leader dog they are often tempted to run up and pet them. They have to keep in mind they are working dogs and are being trained to be obedient and calm.

Britton added Dusty is the first future leader dog she has trained so far.

She and her husband of 50 years, Charlie, have lived in Clarkston for 12 years. Linda applied to get Dusty in February and took a class before she got him in May.

"We got him when he was nine weeks, and we will have him for about a year before he has to go back to do more leader dog training," she said.

After undergoing all of his training, Dusty will be assigned to a person somewhere in the world who is legally blind, said Linda.

Before Dusty finds a forever home with his future friend, the person that will become Dusty's owner has to be trained at the Leader Dog for the Blind's Rochester facility.

"The blind person will live there while they train them how to handle their leader dog," said Linda.

Linda and Dusty go to Rochester facility for training session each month, but the training never stops at home.

She and Dusty's latest excursion involved training at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport where she took Dusty through security and the baggage claim process. They also rode the elevator at the airport.

"We go on a lot of field trips," she laughed.

Linda is also teaching Dusty basic obedience like sit, stay and down.

"We also do things at home," she said. "I will tell him to stay and then have the doorbell rung, so I can train him to be calm and stay in place when the doorbell rings."

Dusty comes from a good pedigree. Dusty's mother was a black lab and his grandmother was a golden retriever - both dogs are in the breeding program.

The Leader Dog Program provides a puppy counselor which helps support her through training and helps answer any questions.

Linda said she got involved in the program after hearing about it from some friends at church.

She and her husband have had several dogs over the years, and all of them passed away.

"I missed having a dog around the house, but did not want to make a long-term commitment," she said.

She said there are programs for minimum security prisoners to raise Leader Dogs - a program she thinks is a good idea. "They have a higher rate of success when prisoners train them because they have so much time to spend focusing on them."

As for the Leader Dog program, Linda is proud to be part of it.

"This program is very special," she said. "People all over have leader dogs."

As for how she will handle it when she has to turn him in, Linda said she's not sure how she will feel. "The greater service is turning him in," she added.

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Staff writer
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