WAUSAU, Wis. (AP) — Right now Pearl the puppy has limited skills. She’s pretty good at not peeing in the house. She sits upon command — most of the time. And she’s terrific at flopping over to expose her pudgy belly for petting.
The 4-month-old roly-poly yellow Labrador retriever is on a training track to become a service dog with a special mission to help a child with autism. She’s got a long way to go to meet that goal. But if being adorable is any indication of her future success, she’ll be great.
Pearl is in the care and tutelage of Nicole Guite, 34, of Wausau. Nicole brings years of experience of working with service dogs that were trained to help people who are blind, and it’s that background that brought Nicole and Pearl together.
Guite and Pearl were paired up by BluePath Service Dogs, a nonprofit organization based about an hour north of New York City in the Hudson Valley. The group’s mission is to provide dogs that offer “safety, companionship and opportunities for independence” for who live with autism.
“Pearl loves people. She gets very excited by people,” Guite told the Wausau Daily Herald (http://wdhne.ws/2oy2fPQ ). “She’s just silly. She loves to play. … She’s very curious. She’s cautious about new things, but she’s very curious about them.”
Dogs can help children in a variety of ways, according to the BluePath website. A trained dog that has bonded with a child with autism can help the child develop healthy changes in sleeping, eating and social behaviors. Many children with autism also may have a tendency to bolt when under stress or fear. In those cases, the dog is connected to the child using a tether system, and the dog is trained to be an “anchor” as a friendly restraint.
Before Pearl came into her life, Guite worked for a New York-based agency Guiding Eyes for the Blind, that provides service dogs for people who are blind. But at times, the agency has trained dogs to became helpers for those with autism. For example, one of the dogs Guite had a hand in training became an autism service dog for a family who lives on Staten Island.
She has kept in touch with the family and has seen what a companion dog can do for a child.
“This family was able to go trick or treating for the first time,” she said. “They can go on vacation or to the grocery store without having to worry about the child running away or having a meltdown. … Dogs just have a calming influence on kids.”
Pearl comes from a special breeding program that aims to develop dogs particularly suited for service work.
But Guite has come to be a volunteer puppy raiser through a much more circuitous route. She’s a 2001 Wausau West High School graduate who went on to study criminal justice and psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. After graduating there, she went on to earn a master’s degree in forensic psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
Guite then worked as a probation officer in New York for three years. During that time, she began to get the urge to have a dog. She wasn’t so sure about actually owning a dog in the city, so she opted to become a volunteer puppy raiser for Guiding Eyes. Puppy raisers care for and train young dogs in basic dog behavioral skills, until the animals reach an age where they can absorb specialty training.
Eventually, Guite left her job as a probation officer to become a volunteer coordinator for Guiding Eyes. Meanwhile, she continued to raise puppies for service work. Even though she knew that she would have to give up the dogs she had trained, she found the process to be incredibly rewarding.
“I know these dogs are making such a difference in peoples’ lives,” Guite said. Separating from dogs she loves is a tough part of the job, she said, “but I liken it to a parent sending their child off to college.”
The work led her to develop friendships and relationships with the founders of BluePath Service Dogs, who also worked for Guiding Eyes. Jody Sandler, BluePath president and CEO, is a veterinarian who previously worked with GuidingEyes. He and his wife, Caroline McCabe-Sandler, who specializes in dog training, wanted to start an organization that focused solely on developing service dogs for children with autism.
Last November, Guite moved back to Wausau to be closer to family. But she kept in touch with her friends at BluePath.
And a few months later, she was paired with Pearl. Now they are inseparable.
“My job with Pearl is to socialize her to different environments, different people, different dogs, children,” she said. “Also some basic obedience: Sit down, stay, come. All of those things. To house train her, but also to teach her to have good manners in the house. That’s very important.”
Meanwhile, Guite and Pearl are nearly inseparable. Nicole is the daughter of Tammy and Greg Guite, the owners of Elite Carriers, a trucking firm located in Merrill. Nicole is working at the business and Pearl is constantly beside her. Nicole also has been slowly expanding Pearl’s world, taking her out on walks when schools let out, for example.
“I incorporate her into everything I do throughout the day,” she said, “because that’s what she’ll be doing as a service dog.”
Pearl loves it. “I’m teaching her that the world’s a great place,” Guite said. That’s a lesson she hopes Pearl will pass on to a child.
Information from: Wausau Daily Herald Media, http://www.wausaudailyherald.com