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Service dog has radar ready for helping

Radar has a full life ahead of him.

First he has to finish his training. Then he has to go to his October graduation complete with a mortar cap, tassel and paw shake.

Then he goes to advance training for six months, then team training for two weeks. Then he will spend most of his life helping someone who is disabled.

But for now, he is a classroom celebrity.

"My kids were really excited about Radar coming," said Sofia Chatman, who teaches third grade at Forest Lakes Elementary School.

Radar, an 8-month-old, 65-pound golden retriever, belongs to Canine Companions for Independence, a non-profit organization that trains dogs to help people with muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, autism and hearing disabilities.

Since January Radar has visited more than 30 classrooms around the county. But he is especially popular at Forest Lakes because that's where Gianne Mustra, his caretaker until October, teaches reading.

A few weeks ago, a fourth-grade class at the school voted Radar student of the week. However, he wasn't given the honor since the award has to be given to a student.

Radar has been touring schools because most third-graders in Pinellas County schools read My Buddy, a book about a boy who has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair. The boy has a golden retriever service dog that pulls his wheelchair, turns on lights and picks up items.

And Radar, who is being trained as a service dog, looks exactly like the dog from the book.

"It's kind of strange, like the book was made from him," said Kylani Arata, 9, who is in Chatman's class. "I learned that those kinds of dogs can help people with wheelchairs and people who can't see or hear."

A day after Chatman's class read the book, students got to meet and pet Radar, whose appearance really helps the class understand the book, Chatman said.

"They can retain better with the hands-on approach," she said. "They can actually see the lesson of the day."

And the lesson of the day is that some people rely on dogs every day.

"I never knew dogs could help people in wheelchairs," said Saif Alaqili, 8, who is in Chatman's class. "They probably have to be strong to pull the wheelchair."

Other students were impressed with Radar's obedience.

"He doesn't bark when anybody comes by," Erin Embree, 9, said. "He's a pretty cool dog because he doesn't jump on anybody."

Those students were not the only ones impressed with Radar. Mustra and her family, who are taking care of Radar until he goes to his advanced training in October, are so impressed with Radar that they dread the day they have to give him up.

"It's going to be so hard to give him back," Mustra said. "When I got him, I knew I would have to give him back, so I thought I could stay detached, but you can't."

Mustra got Radar from Canine Companions for Independence in October. Mustra and her family are called "puppy raisers" by the organization. They are responsible for his veterinary and food expenses. They also have to teach Radar basic commands and the proper way to socialize with humans.

There are about 520 puppy raisers in the country, 47 in the Southeast and 27 in Florida, said Renee Baker, who is the southeast region development associate for Canine Companions.

The southeast regional office in Orlando graduates more than 40 dogs a year from basic training to advanced training, during which they learn how to turn on lights, open doors, retrieve hard-to-reach objects and pull wheelchairs.

"It's like sending them off to college," Baker said. "There are a lot of tears because just when you think they are trained and the perfect pal, it's time for them to go to advance training."

Only 35 percent graduate from the six-month advanced training to the next level, team training. Most dogs will not pass because of their health or temperament. Some are just too hyper, Baker said.

The dogs that do not pass are either returned to their puppy raisers permanently or become search-and-rescue or drug-sniffing dogs.

Those that do pass go to team training, where they are matched with someone who has a disability. For two weeks, the person and the dog familiarize themselves with each other.

It costs more than $10,000 to put each dog through all the training and involves about 23 people: breeders, trainers, volunteers and puppy raisers, Baker said.

"It definitely is a labor of love," Baker said.

The dogs that make it through all the training are turned over to their new partners for about $125, which covers the $25 application fee and some training costs and supplies.

If Radar passes all the stages, then Mustra and her family will probably never see him again, something Mustra does not want to think about.

"It will be so hard," Mustra said. "But we know so many people need him."

How to be

puppy raiser

For information on the Canine Companions for Independence or how to be a puppy raiser, call (407) 834-2555.