Puppy goes to Berkeley Prep to learn to be a guide dog

TAMPA

Amid the hustle and bustle of the first days of school at Berkeley Prep, one student seemed to go unnoticed.

As she ambled through the hallways Wednesday, she peered up at fellow students with a pleading look in her eyes. Once or twice she even brushed up against them, hopefully.

Still, the students treated her as though she was invisible. They were doing what they were told.

Berkeley, who is named after the Town 'N Country private school, is a guide dog in training.

Her future depends on her ability to blend in wherever she goes, said C.D. McLean, the library department chairwoman and upper division librarian at Berkeley Preparatory Academy, as well as the puppy's caregiver.

And what better place to start than a school filled with more than a 1,000 kids.

The 16-week-old black Labrador retriever is one of more than 200 puppies preparing for a career as a seeing-eye dog through the nonprofit organization Southeastern Guide Dogs. The Palmetto-based organization breeds, trains and provides guide dogs to visually impaired individuals at no cost to the recipient.

As a volunteer, McLean will raise Berkeley for 14 to 20 months. During that time, Berkeley will go to school with McLean three days a week, accompany her to the grocery store and even go out to dinner and the movies with McLean and her husband.

"She'll get the full experience, just like if I was blind and she was my seeing-eye dog," McLean said.

Then Berkeley will move on to more formal training and eventually become someone's guide dog.

The process isn't new for students of the prep school. Berkeley is the second furry friend they've welcomed into their ranks. Last year, McLean raised Bingo, another black Lab, for the guide dog organization.

This year, in order to name the new puppy after the school, students in the Animal Club and student government raised $3,500 to donate to the nonprofit.

Her being at the school "brings the community together because we have a special thing that unites all of us," said 17-year-old Alexis Tsavoussis, a senior who's in student government.

Just a couple of days into the school year, Berkeley is already famous on campus and almost everyone knows the rules.

"Students are better at ignoring her than the faculty," McLean said after a several teachers walked by with fingers outstretched, looks of yearning on their faces.

Whenever Berkeley is sporting her blue-and-white "puppy in training" coat, which happen to be the school colors, she is off-limits to everyone except McLean.

When the coat does come off, there is no shortage of volunteers ready and willing to pet, play and hug the happy dog.

"She is just so hard to resist," said Connor Stonesifer, 16, a junior in the student government.

On Wednesday, Berkeley proved her training was already paying off. As cheerleaders called out the school's (and Berkeley's) name at the first pep rally of the year, the puppy barely batted an eye.

Instead, she laid her chin down and closed her eyes as her breath left fog on the wooden gym floor.

Puppy goes to Berkeley Prep to learn to be a guide dog 08/25/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 26, 2010 1:02am]

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