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Guided By a Passion To Help
by Nathan Orme
Sep 06, 2011 | 3585 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tribune/John Byrne - Emily Cook (left) and Kelsey Mammen, both students at the University of Nevada, Reno, walk outside the Joe Crowley Student Union on Tuesday with Mulberry, the 4-month-old golden retriever/yellow Labrador mix they are socializing to prepare him for training as a guide dog.
Tribune/John Byrne - Emily Cook (left) and Kelsey Mammen, both students at the University of Nevada, Reno, walk outside the Joe Crowley Student Union on Tuesday with Mulberry, the 4-month-old golden retriever/yellow Labrador mix they are socializing to prepare him for training as a guide dog.
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RENO — In junior high school, Emily Cook and Kelsey Mammen decided they wanted to be mothers.

So, the two Carson City teens got approval from their parents and before long each of them had their first child — of the four-legged variety, that is.

For about five years, Cook and Mammen have been volunteer guide dog trainers, raising puppies for about 16 months each to help get them ready for the formal training they need to become lifelong companions to blind people. The two young women became friends through their volunteerism, have raised six dogs between them and now are roommates as students at the University of Nevada, Reno, where they are sharing duties raising a seventh dog.

“I love raising them,” said Cook, 18, a freshman at UNR. “It’s a very rewarding experience and I can’t see my life without it now.”

This weekend, Cook and Mammen will be helping with the Dogs With Hearts of Gold III, a champagne reception and lunch to raise money for the Sierra Nevada Friends Committee of Guide Dogs for the Blind, a nonprofit organization based in San Rafael, Calif., that trains dogs to guide people who are legally blind.

The event’s purpose is to raise money to pay for veterinary care for the animals while they live with volunteers such as Cook and Mammen. The jobs of the volunteers is to take the dogs with them everywhere they go so they become socialized and used to being out in the hustle and bustle of the world.

Dogs even accompanied the two young women to their high school graduations. First, in 2010, Mammen walked across the stage with Keno, a golden retriever/yellow Labrador mix. Then, earlier this year, Cook took her diploma with one hand while holding Mallory, a black lab, in the other.

“Mulberry gets to go to college,” Cook said of her current canine companion, a 4-month-old golden retriever/yellow lab mix.

The two young women take turns taking Mulberry everywhere with them. It is a lot of work and a whole lifestyle of its own, but both said they very much enjoy having him around. They always have poop bags with them and they don’t get embarrassed easily.

“Mallory threw up in one of my classes,” said Mammen, 19, now in her sophomore year at UNR. “You never have a predictable day when you have a dog with you.”

Raising a dog doesn’t always mean it will go on to become a guide dog. After it has completed about a year and a half of socialization, it then must undergo guide dog training, where it will learn how to safely maneuver a blind person across streets, through crowds and around their home. During that process, however, a dog’s behavioral or even medical issues can come into play and trainers might decide the dog isn’t cut out to be a guide — a “career change,” Cook and Mammen said it is called.

This happened to the first few dogs the young women raised. Their first dog to make it through guide training was Burgess, a yellow lab who was the their third dog overall and the first they raised together. The dogs that didn’t become guide dogs still are working dogs, they said. Two of Cook’s and Mammen’s former animals work as therapy dogs, helping raise the spirits of people in the hospital.

While training the dogs to behave in busy situations and for basic obedience, Cook and Mammen get to know their individual quirks. One dog was afraid of statues, while another didn’t like big lecture halls or movie theaters. Mulberry, their current companion, likes to dive into his water dish and splash around.

While teaching the dogs good behavior, Cook and Mammen have learned to be better communicators because they answer a lot of questions from a lot of curious people.

“Everyone is a potential help to the (Guide Dogs) organization,” Mammen said.

The most difficult part of the job is letting go. The dogs become part of the family, Mammen said. Fortunately, they still get to visit these “relatives” on occasion. For example, Tahoe, a golden retriever who was their fourth dog, now is a guide in nearby Sacramento, Calif.

“Wherever they end up we keep in contact,” Cook said.

Anyone interested in volunteering with Guide Dogs for the Blind can visit www.guidedogs.com for more information, but be cautioned: “It’s addicting, so be careful,” Mammen said.

Dogs With a Heart of Gold III will be held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday at The Grove, 95 Foothill Road in Reno. Tickets cost $100 per person and include a complimentary champagne bar and lunch. To buy tickets, visit www.guidedogs.com/events, or call 800-295-4050, ext. 4022.
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