DANVILLE -- For the visually impaired, guide dogs are more than just valued companions; they help instill confidence and independence in their handlers. But good guides aren't born, they're raised, and it takes a special kind of dedication and patience to nurture a worthy candidate.
For the past nine years, Mark and Leslie Graham of Danville have volunteered much of their lives to Guide Dogs for the Blind, raising Labrador retriever pups from the age of 8 weeks until they're ready for professional training.
Currently on their 11th puppy -- an active black Labrador named Hartlyn -- the Grahams have invested a lot of attention, time and understanding in each furry bundle of joy, while seeking understanding from store and restaurant owners and the couple's employers.
It's a big commitment, but the Grahams consider the work immeasurably rewarding. "The most important aspect is seeing the change that our dogs made in these people's lives," said Mark Graham, also a member of the Danville Planning Commission. "(The blind) feel trapped, and all of a sudden they're out there and living a full life. Being able to be a part of that makes it all worthwhile."
Raised to bond with people, guide dogs can't be left alone for long, so Mark and Leslie take them to work -- Mark to his office in San Ramon, Leslie to her teaching job -- as well as to grocery stores, restaurants, malls and anywhere they could encounter novel situations. While out and about, they observe and report on the dog's likes and dislikes, how it deals with traffic, and how it interacts with people, from children and bespectacled strangers to men with beards. The Grahams also teach the dogs basic obedience instructions, including training them to relieve themselves on command.
"You might call us puppy socializers," Leslie said. "We train them to be good dogs, then the professionals make them guide dogs."
The Grahams' interest was piqued by their daughter Nicole, who joined 4-H and wanted to raise a guide dog. Mark and Leslie became 4-H service dog project leaders and applied for a puppy through Guide Dogs for the Blind, a San Rafael nonprofit that breeds and trains guide dogs for nine western states. The Grahams are currently two of 440 raisers the group instructs statewide; only a small percentage have raised more than five.
"The Grahams are wonderful, compassionate people," said Tami Shankle, a Guide Dogs for the Blind community field representative. "They take it very seriously and they put everything they have into each puppy ... People like them are why (the work) is so uplifting."
After about a year with the foster family, the puppies move on to formal training; a little more than half of prospects will graduate to working guide dogs. If they don't make the cut, they can be selected for breeding, become service or therapy dogs, or be adopted, as was the Graham's own black lab Arbuckle.
Graduation day in San Rafael is an emotional time, as raisers reunite with dogs, say goodbye to others, and hear stories from handlers helped by their efforts. The Grahams are often asked if it's hard to let the dogs go. While it can be a sad occasion, they say, there are positives.
"You get to take care of the dog, love it and send it off and you don't have to deal with end of life issues," Mark said. "It's a series of different dogs."
Four of the Graham's dogs have gone on to be working guides. At home, while Arbuckle and Hartlyn lounged, Leslie flipped through keepsake books she has made to remember the grads: There's Loralei, who's now a guide dog in Anaheim, and Simba, who lives on the East Coast. Simba's handler Sean Mealin, a blind graduate student at North Carolina State University, is never without his trusted yellow Lab.
"When I'm on campus, Simba is invaluable in helping me get around crowds and different environments," Mealin said. "It gives me a lot more confidence, and I'm not always worrying about not knowing where I'm going. My independence has gone way up."
Mealin credits the Grahams, whom he contacts regularly, with raising a guide he wouldn't trade for the world.
"He's just an unbelievably well-behaved dog," Mealin said. "Their skill and experience definitely show in Simba."
Recently, the Grahams became something of advocates. After the San Ramon Valley Unified School District prohibited all dogs on campuses in 2012, Mark, Leslie, parents and the local guide dog community lobbied for a new policy allowing service dogs in training. It took effect in October, and earlier this month, Hartlyn became the first dog allowed back. Leslie said she's pleased the district saw the benefit of the program.
"It makes a profound difference in the lives of many of these people," she said.
Contact Jeremy Thomas at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/jet_bang.
Names: Mark and Leslie Graham
AGE: 58, both
CLAIM TO FAME: Raising service dogs for the blind since 2004 through the San Rafael-based nonprofit Guide Dogs for the Blind, guide-dog raising advocates.
QUOTE: "I'm not giving (the dog) away, I'm giving it back. We say goodbye to them and know we'll see them again," Leslie Graham said. "It's like they're going away to college."
GUIDE DOG DETAILS: Visit www.guidedogs.com or call Guide Dogs for the Blind at 1-800-295-4050.
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