Golden retriever gets ready to help blind people

Pet Tales

All puppies are cute, but Xante is especially cute, and he is special. The 11-week-old golden retriever wags his long tail nonstop and amuses himself playing with his many toys, including a plush toy golden retriever named Douglas. He eats three times a day, goes outside for frequent breaks and sleeps.

For 10 hours each week Xante -- pronounced ZAN-tee -- does these things "live" on the PG Puppy Cam, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. If you miss the live streaming video, you can see repeats online.

"Xante was bred for a special destiny," said Joan Ardisson, who brought the puppy into her Greensburg home on Jan. 27. Monday through Friday she brings him into her office, where she is assistant to Post-Gazette publisher and editor-in-chief, John Robinson Block, a dog lover and dog owner himself.

Xante was bred by The Seeing Eye Inc., in Morristown, N.J., where he was born on Dec. 9, 2009. Founded in 1929, The Seeing Eye is "the oldest existing dog guide school in the world," according to the website,

"This dog has become my life," Ms. Ardisson said. "I just love him to bits."

She will raise him for 12-18 months. Then she will turn him over to professional trainers at Seeing Eye. After four months of training, if all goes well, Xante will be teamed with a blind or visually impaired person. They will train together for 20 to 27 days, and if Xante passes all of his tests, he will become that person's partner.

The organization aims to enhance the independence, dignity and self-confidence of blind people through the use of Seeing Eye dogs.

It all starts with the well-supervised people who raise the puppies, said Ellen Curry of Lancaster, puppy development area coordinator. Since 1983 she has raised 32 Seeing Eye puppies and has worked for the organization since 1991. Xante and Ms. Ardisson are among her students.

The Seeing Eye has trained 15,000 dogs since its founding, breeding golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, German shepherds and golden-Lab mixes.

Ms. Ardisson said she picked a golden retriever because she is familiar with the breed. She has owned six goldens, including current pets, Cooper and Chance. They're middle-aged dogs that she rescued when their owners were unable to keep them.

Seeing Eye dogs, Ms. Curry said, are carefully bred for intelligence, trainability, temperament and good health, which includes establishing breeding lines that are free of crippling hip dysplasia and joint problems that would shorten a guide dog's working days.

The territory where puppies are raised includes New Jersey, eastern and central Pennsylvania and parts of Maryland and New York. Pittsburgh is not in that territory, but an exception was made for Xante and Ms. Ardisson.

The rationale is strictly geographic, Ms. Curry said. The puppy raisers must attend monthly training classes. Ms. Ardisson is now a member of the Franklin County 4H puppy raising program, and she and Xante will make monthly trips to Chambersburg for training classes.

Many puppies are raised in rural areas by 4H members and their families because Seeing Eye has a long history of working with 4H, Ms. Curry said. But people of all ages raise the puppies, including retired individuals and couples. Puppies are also raised in suburban and urban environments.

Xante is getting a lot of urban socialization. He rides a Westmoreland Transit bus to work every day, the "T" in Downtown Pittsburgh and elevators in office buildings.

Xante's training includes leash walks throughout the Post-Gazette building, especially on the second floor where reporters and editors work. My co-workers say Xante is like a therapy dog, spreading joy throughout the building.

We can all pet and play with Xante and other service dogs in training. No one should ever touch or talk to an adult dog who is working in harness with their partner.

Why do dog lovers raise puppies they can't keep? Here's Ms. Ardisson's response:

"I have been so fortunate my whole life with great animals. I think when you receive you also have to give back, and hopefully the puppy I raise will become a Seeing Eye dog."

As she picks up his leash, Ms. Ardisson notes that Xante will never be taught to "heel" on her left side, and he will never be allowed to "follow."

She gives the command "forward" and smiles as Xante prances in front of her, leading Ms. Ardisson on one of their daily walks as he will one day, hopefully, lead a blind person to a life of independence and dignity.

Watch Xante on the PG Puppy Cam from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays.

Helping hungry pets

North Allegheny Senior High School students are staging the musical "Cats" Wednesday through March 7 , and the "Cats" cast is reaching out to help hungry cats and other pets.

The cast encourages its audience members to bring donations of pet food and treats to performances. Donations will go to the Animal Friends' shelter's Chow Wagon, which distributes pet food and toys to more than 1,200 families who get help from food pantries throughout the area.

The "Cats" musical will be in the high school auditorium, 10375 Perry Highway (Route 19), McCandless. All seating is reserved, with advance tickets $10 for students and $12 for adults. Call the box office at 724-934-7288 for details.

Linda Wilson Fuoco: or 412-263-3064. First Published February 27, 2010 5:00 AM