SAN JOSE -- The passenger bridge leading to a JetBlue Airbus at Mineta San Jose International Airport did everything possible to freak out Gabriel, Yogi, Nestle, Weller and Xavier.
It groaned and creaked. It rocked and rolled. The very ground beneath the paws of the five retrievers couldn't be trusted, an alarm bell suddenly blared and then came the passengers, hundreds of them trailing rumbling carry-ons.
But the guide dogs in training, backed by their handlers, remained alert and stoic Monday evening. If the jetway was a sensory chamber of horrors for the pups, they weren't making it known. And that's exactly what Guide Dogs for the Blind likes to see in a service animal.
"We've never had that happen before, getting on a plane with the engine still on, with all the bells going off," said Scott Garcia, a 31-year-old San Jose resident and assistant leader with the guide dog group. "They all did very well, even Nestle the puppy."
As part of its partnership with the Transportation Security Administration, the airport and a carrier, Garcia's group brings dogs to Mineta every year. The goal: to familiarize the dogs with something that they'll likely encounter when they are later tasked with leading a person who depends on them.
"An airport is very challenging," Garcia said. "All the people, and all the noises and smells. And there will always be children coming up to them because it's a dog."
Nestle, at 5½ months old, was the baby in the group, although most were about a year old. They are taken in by handlers when only a couple months old and taught the essentials -- toilet training, eating on command, when it's time to play and when it's time to work.
"We're pretty much teaching the dog the basic house manners," said Nestle's handler, Joi Walker. "We teach them so they won't be dancing around the kitchen tripping people anytime they're exposed to food."
Then they go to the guide dog group's San Rafael facility for intensive professional training involving maneuvering around obstacles, recognizing overhead clearances, knowing when to cross the street, boarding escalators and other complex tasks.
Only 50 percent of the dogs graduate to become a service animal. The others either return to their handler or are adopted out, and there's high demand for the also-rans.
Handlers said it's an honor if their animal is accepted, but there is an attachment that comes with spending so much time with a buddy and showing them different experiences. They go to the mall together, the movies together, they take them into restaurants and on buses and trains. Cathi Hall took her black Labrador Yogi to the Scottish Highland Gathering and Games in Pleasanton earlier this month, where he was exposed to men in kilts and the shrill whine of bagpipes, taking it all in stride after some initial apprehension.
"Yes, it's hard to give them up," said Karen Brown, who has trained nine puppies. "I cry every time."
Contact Eric Kurhi at 408-920-5852. Follow him at Twitter.com/erickurhi.