Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 27, 2012

An act of devotion

Training guide dogs for the blind is a life-long passion for Alana Schwartz

by Sue Dremann

Ever since she was 8 years old, Alana Schwartz has trained guide dogs for blind and visually impaired persons. A senior at Palo Alto High School, Schwartz, 18, is training her ninth dog, a yellow Labrador retriever named Andretti.

"I loved dogs as a young kid," she said.

Schwartz got into Guide Dogs for the Blind dog training because of her aunt, Robin Levy, a Jordan Middle School teacher. When Levy "dragged" Schwartz to a meeting, she met other young people who were raising the dogs. And she was hooked, she said.

Her first dog, Logger, went everywhere with her.

"He came to school, and we flew on a plane and went to Disneyland with him," she recalled.

Logger didn't make it as a guide dog — not all have the requisite temperament — but Schwartz was able to adopt him back, she said.

She's had Andretti for 10 months. Training means 14 to 16 months of commitment, starting when the pup is 8 weeks old, she said. And at the end of all that work and bonding, she has to give the dog back.

But Schwartz said even as a child she understood there was a greater purpose to her efforts.

"Hopefully, he will help someone get their eyes back. You have to look at it positively," she said.

All of the dogs she's trained have been yellow Labs, she said. Poised and self-assured, Schwartz said the dogs have taught her much.

"I learned a sense of responsibility. Even from a little age, it gave me confidence. You know people are watching, so you try to make things go smoothly," she said.

Outside Coupa Café, Andretti, a large male with soft brown eyes and a relaxed demeanor, lay stretched out at Schwartz's feet. A man at the next table edged around the sprawling dog, but the yellow Lab didn't budge.

Schwartz reached down and scratched behind his ears.

"I think he might be the best one we have raised. The one we had before was very energetic. He just wanted to start a party everywhere. We've had some wild ones," she said.

On average, 50 percent make it as guide dogs, she said. Three of Schwartz's dogs have graduated to blind owners, she said.

The dogs must go far beyond training for an average canine, she said. They learn not to pick up food on the ground and not to chase balls or sticks — a serious hazard when a blind person is at the other end of the leash.

Schwartz shares Andretti's training and care with her aunt. She takes the dog everywhere so he will not be anxious or feel threatened by any situation. Andretti accompanies her to Paly, to elementary schools, on field trips and to the California Avenue Farmers Market. The latter provides plenty of commotion and noisy children, she said.

As they learn more skills, the dogs learn to process their surroundings.

"It's almost like they have a human brain," she said.

Two Sundays each month, Schwartz meets with other volunteer dog trainers.

"I definitely looked up to older kids when I was young. It's fun now to help the younger kids," she said.

Schwartz described herself as a "people person." Besides attending school, she works part time at the downtown yogurt shop Fraiche and also babysits.

She has applied for a summer internship through the Guide Dogs for the Blind campus in San Rafael. And when she leaves for the University of Oregon in the fall, she'll be situated near the Guide Dogs' second campus. She wants to continue training dogs, she said. Schwartz isn't sure what she wants to study, but veterinary medicine and business are two interests.

When it comes time to give up Andretti, Schwartz will take him to the San Rafael campus, where he will be trained to wear a harness and stop at curbs. At his graduation, she will get to meet the blind person with whom he will reside. That moment is when the parting is palpable.

"Now his main attention is with the blind person. It's cool to watch what our training has contributed. It really does change their lives," she said. "I feel fortunate to do something a little selfless — maybe it's a little selfish because I love the dogs."

Schwartz has kept in touch with some of the dogs. Their owners post photos on Facebook, she said.

"I can't believe it's already been 10 years. It makes me feel so old. It's definitely a community-outreach sort of thing. Everyone asks about it. I definitely think it's very important to be involved in the community. People get to know you," she said.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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