HARTLAND (AP) -- Benjamin Payne reaches down and praises the small German shepherd sitting at his feet.
"Good girl, Traeh," he says with a smile. The puppy wags her tail. Benjamin beams.
Still, no matter how sweet the dog and how intelligent she is, he can't get too attached to her. He plans, over the next year, to keep telling himself one thing: "She's not my dog."
Benjamin, the 14-year-old son of Lori and Jacky Payne, of rural Hartland, is serving as a puppy raiser for Leader Dogs for the Blind, based in Rochester.
Until Traeh ("heart" spelled backward) is a year old, she'll be trained and socialized by Benjamin.
Lori Payne had actually heard about the Leader Dogs in Training program through a friend in Owatonna. When Benjamin began thinking about what to do for an Eagle Scout project, the family began to explore being a puppy raiser for the program as a project. They approached Troop 219 Scoutmaster Frank Mueller with the idea. Mueller liked the idea, which hadn't been done before. However, the Paynes needed to come up with a leadership facet to the project.
So Benjamin is enlisting help from other Scouts in teaching Traeh manners in preparation for taking the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizen test.
Before getting Traeh, the Paynes filled out an application online, then waited 11 months until they were told a dog was available. They drove to Michigan and picked up Traeh on Jan. 5, when she was two months old.
Benjamin is one of seven puppy raisers now in Minnesota. There are another 15 people on the waiting list. The people in Minnesota get together once a month to practice commands and to make sure everything is going well between puppy and raiser, Lori said. Trainers must have a fenced yard, and keep the dogs away from bones and squeaky toys. They can't have balls thrown to them and aren't allowed to sit on the furniture or eat out of someone's hand. It's critical that the puppy learn to be calm and quiet in public, to become accustomed to interacting with strangers, and to accept many unfamiliar environments, Lori said.
So the Paynes are taking Traeh as many places as they can: schools, stores, malls, restaurants, dentist's office and libraries to any of the places the dog will need to go in her travels with her blind master. They try to get out with her two or three times a week.
"We encourage people to pet her, hug her and get kissed," Lori said.
"People have loved her," Benjamin added.
When going on these excursions, Traeh must wear her Leader Dog Puppy tag and blue "Future Leader Dog" bandanna or saddle. Puppies exposed to this type of socialization have a dramatically increased chance to successfully making it through the rigorous training required of leader dogs. Benjamin said 40 percent of the puppies never make it to four-month-long leader dog training.
"They're either too timid, too aggressive, or won't pull out in front," he said.
Leader dogs also have to demonstrate "intelligent disobedience," Benjamin said. In other words, they need to know when to disobey their masters so they do not put them in danger.
Leader Dog in Training puppies are specially bred to be guide dogs.
"Traeh's mother went all the way through leader dog training, and they determined her to be exceptional," Lori said, adding she was put in the breeding program before being paired with a blind person.
She said she believes Traeh has a very good chance of becoming a leader dog someday, from what she's seen already. And when it's time to take her back to Michigan, they know they'll be sad, but happy knowing they had a part in helping a blind person get the type of companion they need.
"We just hope people will get used to the sight of a leader dog in training in the community," Lori said. "We hope she's a good teaching tool for the community."
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