Darius was an adorable, wiggly 8-week-old puppy when he started "working" at the Post-Gazette in April 2012. To know the black Labrador retriever was to love him, but everyone knew he was destined for bigger things. Darius was bred to lead a blind person to a life of independence. He came to work at the newspaper with Joan Ardisson, a volunteer "puppy raiser" for The Seeing Eye Inc.
Ms. Ardisson and her husband raised Darius and loved him, and then they said goodbye to him last spring when he was about 15 months old. None of us will ever see Darius again.
After months of professional training in Morristown, N.J., Darius graduated from The Seeing Eye in December. He now lives in Washington, D.C., with a businessman who had waited 18 months for his perfect canine partner. Darius is the man's fourth guide dog, and we hear he wept with joy when he met "our" Darius.
Darius is perhaps best known locally as "Xante's little brother."
Xante is a 4-year-old golden retriever who was also raised by Ms. Ardisson, who was assistant to Post-Gazette publisher and editor-in-chief John Robinson Block. Xante grew up on the PG Puppy Cam, which had a large following on the Post-Gazette website, and he still has a Facebook page with 1,568 likes. Darius had neither of those things, but PG employees loved seeing him in the newsroom. There is nothing like playing with a puppy on company time.
"It's bittersweet," Ms. Ardisson said of Darius' graduation, but she is very proud of him.
Only 60 percent become guide dogs. Xante passed all the tests, but a minor eye problem took him out of the program. He's back home in Ligonier with Ms. Ardisson and her husband and their golden retriever, Cooper, and English springer spaniel, Hannah. Xante is now a certified therapy dog, so he'll be putting his breeding and training to good use.
I wondered if the three adult dogs were sad when Darius left.
"It was like nothing" for Xante, Cooper and Hannah, Ms. Ardisson said, with a chuckle.
"From the very beginning, Darius was always such a good boy. So interested in pleasing," she said. "I knew he would make it. We hit a home run twice, raising two great dogs."
Although Ms. Ardisson did all the heavy lifting with both dogs, she uses "we" to generously credit her co-workers for their puppy-raising contributions. Ms. Ardisson retired in February 2012, and we miss her, too, as well as the puppies.
Helping guide dogs
There's another guide dog with a Pittsburgh connection who is helping Darius and other guide dogs. Dusty, a German shepherd, is serving in a way that no one would have predicted.
In July 2010, Dusty and the puppy-raiser who was walking him on a leash were attacked by a dog running loose in their neighborhood. Dusty needed 100 stitches to close wounds in his neck and throat. The puppy-raiser also sustained injuries, including losing a finger tip.
The Seeing Eye worked with Dusty for months, but he could not overcome his fear of dogs. It would not be safe for him to lead a blind person.
The Seeing Eye has a long list of people waiting to adopt dogs that don't make the guide dog grade. When he was about 14 months old, Dusty was placed with a family in northern New Jersey. They re-named him Pouncey for Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey.
The husband/father is a Pittsburgh native, and the entire family roots for the black and gold, including the dog, who wears a Pouncey shirt during televised football games.
"We love Pouncey. He is smart, strong and handsome" and is a wonderful pet, said the wife/mother in his family. He is still afraid of other dogs, crying like a baby when he sees them in the veterinarian office, she said. They continue to work on his fear, avoiding dog parks and walking him on quiet neighborhood streets where he is unlikely to encounter other dogs.
Word of the horrific attack spurred members of the New Jersey Assembly to pass Dusty's Law earlier this month. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed it into law last week.
"Dusty's Law requires police to respond to a reported attack on a guide dog team," said Seeing Eye president and CEO Jim Kutsch. The protection extends to puppies in training.
Forty-four percent of guide dog teams in the United States have been attacked by other dogs, according to a 2011 survey by The Seeing Eye. A whopping 83 percent reported "instances of aggressive interference" from another dog. Most of the reported attacks -- 80 percent -- happened on a public street or sidewalk, and 74 percent occurred within a 30-minute walk of the guide dog user's home.
Pennsylvania has a law that specifically covers guide dogs.
"It's not as strong as Dusty's Law, but it's enough to get police response in the event of an attack, which is very important for the safety of the guide dog team," Seeing Eye spokeswoman Michelle Barlak said.
The Seeing Eye suggests ways we can make life better for working dogs:
• Do not let your pet near a guide dog, even if your pet is leashed.
• Using retractable leashes in populated areas and leaving your dog tied up and unattended in public places can endanger a guide dog team.
• Report loose dogs to the local police and animal control officer.
• Offer assistance to a blind handler if you witness an attack or interference.
The extensive, expensive training of Darius, Dusty, Xante and the others is funded by contributions -- and not by the blind people who need these dogs. Donations can be made online at www.SeeingEye.org or mail to Box 375, Morristown, NJ 07963.
Pet Tales appears weekly in the Saturday Home & Garden section. Contact Linda Wilson on her Facebook page, email@example.com or 412-263-3064. Got a pet health question? Email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. It may be answered in an upcoming Pet Points column by veterinarians at the Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic.