Penn Hills couple trains Doberman Pinscher as guide dog
By Patrick Varine
Published: Thursday, April 4, 2013, 10:51 a.m.
It doesn't take long to see that Rylie the puppy has potential to be an excellent guide dog.
The three-month-old Doberman Pinscher sits attentively as Michele Shepler of Penn Hills holds a squeak toy and moves it around, allowing Rylie to follow it with her eyes, but not chase it.
“She'll sit and be calm and not bother anything — she's not a typical puppy,” said Shepler, who along with her husband will share their Darrell Drive home with Rylie for the next 16 months, socializing and training her for the Gallant Hearts Guide Dog Center in Mississippi.
Center owner Rebecca Floyd is blind and not only raises Dobermans, but has worked a Doberman as her guide dog since 1968. Gallant Hearts, established in 2009, is just the second center in the U.S. to train Dobermans as guide dogs, which Floyd said is an unfortunate byproduct of their reputation.
“I see it as our job to change that reputation,” she said. “Dobermans are great lap-dogs. They are not at all what people think them to be … they're excellent working dogs, they love to please, they're very bright, and they're the fifth-most intelligent breed of dog.”
Shepler, who already owns two Dobermans that are trained as therapy dogs, agreed that their reputation precedes them, referencing the ridiculous 1972 film “The Doberman Gang,” where a group of Dobermans is somehow trained to rob a bank.
The movie poster features four snarling Pinschers.
“You see their reputation in movies, in the military and in the police world as guard dogs or attack dogs,” Shepler said. “I take (my 3-year-old female) Crackers to Children's Hospital, and she will just totally ignore everything. She'll walk up to a hospital bedside, lay her head on the bed, and just allow herself to be petted.”
Floyd said Gallant Hearts has sent puppies to be raised and trained in Texas, Georgia, Alabama and now Pennsylvania. In the fall, one will go to California. Once they're socialized and trained, with Gallant Hearts officials checking in on their progress every two months, they come back to the center and start training to become guide dogs.
While Rylie is with Shepler and her husband, however, she will undergo eight weeks of obedience training through Pat Moloney's K-9 Academy, which conducts classes in both Penn Hills and Monroeville.
“There's also an advanced class with 20 to 30 other dogs, which reinforces commands and helps with socialization,” Shepler said. “Then we'll go out twice a week and just walk in neighborhoods, parks, schools, and places where there are a lot of people and noises.”
Shepler said one of the challenges she'll face is training Rylie to get used to walking around a store and not touching merchandise.
“It can be tough getting the public to actually let me come into their place of business and train her,” she said.
Part of that reluctance undoubtedly will be due to the breed's reputation. But Floyd said not only are Dobermans wonderful pets, they also make for a low-maintenance guide dog.
“They're short-haired, so you don't have the grooming problems that a lot of people get with long-haired dogs,” she said. “We just really like the Doberman.”
For more information about Gallant Hearts Guide Dog Center, visit Gallanthearts.org or call 601-853-6996.
Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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