Saukville youngster learning as she trains Gus to become a guide dog
There is a deep bond between 13-year-old Natalia Kutny and her 8-month-old yellow Labrador puppy, Gus.
Still, the Town of Saukville girl knows Gus is not destined to be her lifelong companion. He has a higher calling.
Natalia is raising Gus to become a service dog for the Madison-based OccuPaws Guide Dog Association.
By the time her canine companion reaches 18 months, he will be matched with a visually impaired master after undergoing addition on-the-job training.
Gus has been a member of the Kutny household for about five months, but Natalia has little trouble reconciling the fact that his stay is temporary.
“He is a great dog. I love him so much. He learns easily and is very affectionate. I am sure it is going to be tough when it is time to give him up,” the youngster said.
“But knowing he is going to be helping someone who is blind and who really needs him will help a lot. That is a good feeling.”
Natalia, who is homeschooled, got the inspiration to work with Gus when doing research for an essay she wanted to write about puppy training.
“It was my dad’s idea to look into the idea of training a guide dog. We went to the Ozaukee Humane Society and they gave us information about OccuPaws,” Natalia said.
The family completed an application, and was approved to become a training home for a puppy picked to become a guide dog.
Natalia’s mother Lucy said the other members of her household were more enthusiastic about the plan than she was.
“Frankly, I don’t think I would have gone along with it if Natalia wasn’t being homeschooled,” her mother said.
The puppy placement experience got off to a rocky start, when OccuPaws assigned a black poodle to the family that proved to be a bit too aggressive.
That dog was returned, and Gus arrived on the scene.
The puppy arrived with a binder full of training instructions, and ready contact information for a local puppy coordinator who is available to handle any behavioral issue that comes up.
There are also regular get togethers for the local volunteers who are raising dogs in training.
“Everyone is so warm and caring. We are committed to our dogs and it feels like a big family when we get together with our dogs,” Natalia said.
Before she could become adept at training Gus for his role as a guide dog, Natalia said she had to learn the rules of service dog behavior.
“We can play with him as much as we want, but the main rule is that when your dog is wearing his vest, he is working,” Natalia said.
In work mode, Gus has the full privileges of any other service dog.
“We take him to restaurants, where he has learned to sit quietly at my feet, and into stores like Walmart, where he knows to stay under control and not knock over the displays,” Natalia said.
The youngster said her connection with Gus has elevated her status among her circle of friends.
“My friends this it is so cool that I am training Gus, and they want me to bring him with us anytime we go anywhere — even to the movies,” Natalia said.
The Kutny house has been home to an assortment of pets, including other dogs, a variety of cats and hamsters, and a horse.
Still, Gus has largely been Natalia’s responsibility, and the lessons have already sunk in.
“It does take a lot of time and commitment. You can’t just put him in his crate when you want to go out. He has to be my main priority,” she said.
If that sounds like a daunting task, Natalia said OccuPaws is always looking for families willing to serve in the less demanding capacity of “puppy sitters” to people raising guide dogs and need a little assistance.
Officials at the organization note that their only paid staff member is a licensed and certified dog trainer who works with each placement animal.
More information about the puppy-raising program is available at the website www.occupaws.org or by calling (608) 772-3787.
Image Info: NATALIA KUTNY HAS quickly bonded with Gus, knowing the yellow Labrador will eventually be called to duty as a guide dog with the Madison-based OccuPaws. The 13-year-old Town of Saukville resident takes her canine companion just about everywhere she goes. Photo by Sam Arendt