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LEMOORE — Sophomore Janson Cunningham held his new friend, La Forge, in his arms Tuesday while he explained that the puppy was named after the blind “Star Trek” character — a fitting tribute, as the student will spend the next year training the dog to be a guide for the visually impaired.

Students in the Lemoore High School FFA Guide Dog Puppy Raising Project have been raising and socializing puppies for the Guide Dogs for the Blind program since the late 1980s. Each student is tasked with raising a puppy from eight weeks to 13-15 months old, at which point the dog transfers to San Rafael for specialized guide-dog training.

The program, headed by Marybeth Hearn, has been named Organization of the Year by the Lemoore Chamber of Commerce and will be honored at its 61st annual Installation Banquet on Friday, Jan. 18.

“We were all very surprised. The students aren’t paid for this, it’s completely volunteer-based and they, along with their families, put a lot of time and effort into raising these animals. Some mornings, I see the students dragging in, looking like they’ve been through the ringer with new puppies, so it’s quite an honor,” Hearn said.

Cunningham received La Forge — the program’s youngest dog —  just three before talking to the Sentinel, saying he wanted to be a part of the program as a way to give back to those who need the dogs – people like Cunningham’s uncle who was struck by an improvised explosive device while serving in Afghanistan. The explosion left the man with brain damage; Several others died.

The Guide Dogs for the Blind program began in 1942 as a way to help veterans who had been blinded in World War II.

“I was inspired to help,” Cunningham said.

The students are with the dogs as much of the day as possible, going with them everywhere in order to prepare the furry friends for their 24/7 duty when they’re eventually matched up with someone blind or visually impaired.

The students, around a dozen of which are in the program, point out that they’ve gone to restaurants, church, salons and even to movies with the dogs in their care. The dogs also accompany them to class when they’re a little older.

“Our job is to expose these dogs to as many different situations as possible. We have no idea what the lifestyle of the blind person is going to be, so we have to expose these dogs to as much as possible,” Hearn said.

About 60 percent of the dogs in the program will go on to be guides. Those that don’t make it are considered “career change dogs” and may go on to serve other roles including joining the Dogs for Diabetes or Hearing Dog programs or may be paired with a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

There are currently more than 2,000 families participating in the puppy-raising program across 10 western states.

The oldest dog in the Lemoore program, Mentor, will leave for guide dog training next month – always a bittersweet time for each trainer.

“It’s horrible,” Sierra Phelps, who has raised three dogs, said in way that was a mixture of joke and truth.  

“We get attached, but we know the dogs are going to someone who really needs them,” Cunningham said.

Hearn said that raising the puppies over the year helps students learn responsibility and may even help them be better parents later in life.

Unlike a fair project, where FFA students will care for a farm animal for around 60 days, these dogs will remain in each student’s care for a full fourth of their time in high school and many of the students raise multiple dogs over the span of their high school careers.

The program uses Labradors and Golden Retrievers.

The program will be honored by the Lemoore Chamber of Commerce alongside Citizen of the Year, Dr. Willie B. Ewing, M.D., Business of the Year, Sushi Table and Public Safety Individual of the Year Abimael Shiyomura.  

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