Prime Living: Guide dog trainer in Aiken helps pave the way for others | Features

Going out for a walk with a dog can be a social occasion for some people, but it’s serious business for Debbie VanZee, who can be spotted for a few more weeks around Aiken with Napoleon, a yellow Labrador under authority. from the Florida-based southeast guide. Dogs.

VanZee, who makes a living as a part-time reservations agent at Omni Hotels and Resorts, has been Napoleon’s constant companion since he was eight weeks old in February 2021, helping him learn to be cool and calm communicative in the presence of such potential dangers as cars, cats and sidewalks.

He’s well on his way to becoming a guide dog, and VanZee is his “puppy raiser,” taking him for walks just yards from Whiskey Road, or the aisles of Publix, Aldi, The Fresh Market and Kroger.

Pet stores are best avoided, in Napoleon’s case, as they provide too many distractions, and the popular “puppy cups” offered at Starbucks are also on the “no” list, as they could mislead a searching guide dog. of whipped cream. .

Aside from puppy cups, treats are still an important part of the mix, as VanZee seeks to keep Napoleon focused on the task and fully aware of when he’s done a great job avoiding obstacles and providing a safe path through. the ground within easy reach (or paw). Dried liver is at the top of the list of treats — “anything they’re interested in,” she said.

“He can never be on furniture and he can never have food for people,” VanZee said, adding that she especially appreciates people who have an appropriate approach to someone using a service dog. .

“The worst thing for a disabled person is that people talk to the dog and treat the master as if they were invisible. When a child has been properly educated, I know… that a parent has given him the good instruction.”


It’s training time Feb. 23 at the Aiken County Public Library, with Debbie VanZee and Napoleon facing a variety of challenges to help prepare Napoleon for life as a guide dog. (Bill Bengtson/staff)

VanZee and Napoleon are to be together until June, when he is due to undergo a thorough examination of his eyes, heart and hips. The next steps could be for him to be handed over to a professional trainer and then – possibly – to his “lifelong partner”, VanZee said. “I keep telling Napoleon, and myself, that someone is patiently waiting for him.”

Raising such puppies, according to VanZee, is too much of a lifestyle for most people to handle. “Yes, it’s painful to let him go, but I’ve seen the end goal and I know these dogs are literally saving the lives of disabled people.”

Napoleon, who sleeps in a crate in VanZee’s bedroom, is her fifth pup in training, dating back to her days with Bohemia under the guidance of Pennsylvania-based Susquehanna Service Dogs. He ended up going to New York, for placement with a young man with Down syndrome, VanZee recalls.

Her second pooch was Milo, now in Missouri, helping a man with multiple sclerosis, following his training through Kansas-based KSDS Service Dogs. VanZee wrote that Milo “provides balance and physical assistance to his partner who suffered broken bones from multiple falls before seeking support from a service dog.”

The next two, Ari and Oscar, were both from Southeastern Guide Dogs. Both were medically released, leading to Ari’s current role as a therapy dog ​​in Virginia and Oscar’s status as an adoptee of a Georgian family.

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Sitting dogs “is really my full-time job, even if it’s volunteering,” she said.

All of VanZee’s training organizations are under the auspices of Assistance Dogs International, which she describes as a breeding cooperative that monitors genetics in order to train and place healthy assistance dogs.

She pointed out that only half of dogs bred and initially trained for service are actually placed with a partner. A working dog must love his job and a career change can happen for many reasons, not just medical.


Napoleon, on his way to a career as a guide dog, is set to travel Feb. 23, with trainer Debbie VanZee as his driver. (Bill Bengtson/staff)

VanZee, who grew up in a Navy family in northern Virginia and has lived in the eastern half of the United States, emphasized that her professional background had nothing to do with animals.

“I’ve been in retail for years, owned my own decorative painting business when I lived in Atlanta, and currently enjoy the flexibility as a part-time booking agent… Service dogs all need to be very comfortable with long periods of downtime, so working from home gives me the opportunity to incorporate that part into each dog’s training.”

Helping to raise Napoleon, she confirmed, has a major effect on the life of not only VanZee, but also her husband, Kirk, who works for a Nashville-based tech company.

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“He’s my partner,” she said. “Actually, I think more often than not it’s harder for him, because obviously in our family I work with Napoleon all the time. We both know he’s going to be gone soon, but it doesn’t make either of us less attached, so we both have to say goodbye.”

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