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Couple provide some puppy love to assist program for the blind They're training animal for guide dog program


Levi has become one of the family since arriving at the Royers' home in Westminster 13 months ago.

The Labrador retriever has learned how to behave in grocery stores and restaurants, and how not to snore in church. He even checks on the Royer children while they're sleeping.

Despite such good behavior, Levi won't stay with the Royers long. He has been temporarily adopted by Kurt and Debbie Royer, who raise puppies for Guiding Eyes for the Blind Inc., a nonprofit group that oversees the breeding and raising of guide dogs.

The Royers are among 550 volunteers on the Eastern seaboard, and have been given an 8-week-old puppy to raise and nurture for about a year and a half. Their responsibility is to expose the pup to varied situations and everyday experiences, to teach manners and house-train the animal.

Like other dogs, Levi will be returned to Guiding Eyes to undergo tests to determine whether he is capable of becoming a guide dog. Each dog costs Guiding Eyes about $25,000, but the group provides the dogs free to the blind.

"It's a very rewarding experience just knowing you're giving somebody independence and dignity," Mrs. Royer said.

The Royers are one of seven families raising guide dogs in the group's Catoctin region, which includes Western Maryland, West Virginia and Northern Virginia. The Royers are the only puppy-raising family in Carroll County.

"There are not a lot of people who realize this program is around, and we're trying to let them know it's out there," Mrs. Royer said, noting the family will staff an information booth about the program at Cranberry Mall on Saturday.

Levi, a sleek black Lab who sports a red bandanna, is the first dog the Royers have raised. Attentive and obedient, he's grown accustomed to the Royers' children, Erica, 8, and Ryan, 4.

"Levi has been great with the kids," Mrs. Royer said.

Before receiving Levi, the Royers attended a puppy-raising class in Brunswick, Frederick County. One of the group's regional coordinators visited the Royers to determine whether their home was a safe environment. Mr. Royer is a truck driver; Mrs. Royer is a nurse.

No experience is needed to raise such puppies. Nor must families have a fenced yard. Food and a leash are the only items the Royers must supply. All other needs, including medical care, are provided by Guiding Eyes.

After about nine months, dogs begin wearing a jacket that reads "Guiding Dog in Training" and are taken everywhere with their host family.

The Royers must attend two puppy-raising classes each month and are visited by an evaluator every three months.

"It's not like you're on your own," Mrs. Royer said. "I call my coordinator any time of the day."

The Royers turn to Connie Graf, the Catoctin region's assistant area coordinator. Graf, who also participates in the program, is about to send a puppy, Norris, to Guiding Eyes to prepare for graduation.

"I look at it as a child going off to school," Graf said. "I'm proud of her if she makes it."

About 50 percent of the puppies pass an initial test before advancing to further training. Once that training is completed, they are matched with a blind individual and graduate from Guiding Eyes.

If a pup is found to be incapable as a guide dog, it is released from the program. Families have the option of adopting their puppy for free. Otherwise, dogs are placed in drug-sniffing or therapy programs, or sold to other families.

Although the Royers will miss Levi, Mrs. Royer said she will be satisfied knowing her family's hard work gave a blind individual his or her "life back."

Pub Date: 2/10/97

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