Family’s service with guide dogs featured in film
Angela Cooper-McCorkle photo
Rebecca Minelga kneels by new trainee Ogden, a Labrador, at the Snohomish Library last week with her sons Sebastian, 1, in her arms, and Oliver, 5.
SNOHOMISH — Don’t pet the puppy.
The unspoken message conveyed by the puppy’s vest was clear. But it was a challenge for patrons not to smother the Labrador with love when he visited the Snohomish Library last week.
Little Ogden was training to
be a guide dog for the blind, just like the five siblings recently featured in “Pick of the Litter” at the Seattle International Film Festival.
The award-winning documentary was filmed partly in Snohomish. It turned the cute up high while sharing the challenges and triumphs of purpose-filled puppies navigating rigorous training.
Ogden, who goes by Oggie Doggie, brought a friend, Rebecca Minelga, who was featured in the film, to share the puppies’ story.
Minelga has raised eight puppies for nonprofit Guide Dogs for the Blind over the past decade. She receives them when they are two to four months old and cares for them over the next 14 to 16 months.
They learn basic obedience and house manners, plus specific guide puppy behaviors.
For one, guide puppies can’t relieve themselves on grass, only concrete, to keep things simple for their owners. They also can’t bark on duty or veer off course to check out distractions.
Plus, they travel everywhere, “so everything is a training opportunity” compared to a pet “who might do a puppy class once a week,” Minelga said.
After basic training, puppies are transferred to new homes for four to six months of advanced training. The training includes 10 phases and finishes with a month of training with their new visually impaired owners.
Minelga was just about to take in her seventh pup when she got the call in June 2015 inviting her to turn her life over to filming for more than a year.
Five little labs were going to be stars: Primrose, Phil, Patriot, Poppet and Potomac. Primrose landed with Minelga.
“It’s just another puppy,” Minelga remembered thinking. “We really had ourselves fooled,” she says now.
The film was just one of many ventures she’s taken on for the sake of guide dogs.
“I never expected we’d be those people,” Minelga said, but the seed was planted perhaps too early for her to resist.
She read “Follow My Leader” in middle school, about a boy blinded by fireworks whose life changes when he’s given the chance to have a guide dog. The story resonated, Minelga said, and raising a guide dog puppy became a “bucket list” item.
When she and her husband chanced by a county fair 4-H demonstration of guide dogs, she told him she’d always wanted to raise one.
He shrugged, she recalled, and said simply, “go do it.”
Life changed from there. Along with having two sons, Minelga said some of the biggest shifts were puppy-based. The family chose its home because it had high enough fences for the dogs, and configured the house specially for its four footed charges. They have even canceled vacations to attend puppy graduations.
Though they were experienced at puppy raising, “It was more pressure than we acknowledged,” to train Primrose in the spotlight, and there were times Minelga doubted the dog would make it through the process. She was a bit of a spaz.
But the filming had its rewards: Minelga got to watch a worrisome clip of the three-month-old pup wandering across a wide trail to check out her husband, and then one of Primrose at six months completely ignoring him only three feet away. What would seem rude in most pets was perfection in Primrose.
Primrose was even invited to a training session at Sea-Tac for a rare chance to navigate the airport, take a train to her terminal, and board a jet, a sequence that made it into the movie.
Quite a bit of the filming did not, which is common for documentaries. The more mundane but important realities of time in crates did not, but a scary sequence with a car did.
The dogs have to learn through experience why to avoid vehicles. The training involves cars with padded bumpers, lots of warning stickers and carefully controlled interactions between car and canine.
As in most cases, not all of the “Pick of the Litter” puppies were suited for guide work. Some, like Primrose, become breeders, while others do early career changes. They may end up as service dogs for owners with less complex needs or join the ranks of family pets.
She’s preparing to welcome a new puppy, born May 15, into her home soon. The journey will come full circle then. The puppy is Primrose’s daughter, and the co-raiser will be her older son Oliver.
“Pick of the Litter” opens widely on Aug. 31. But remember, if you see Ogden or his colleagues around town, don’t pet the puppy, these pros are on the job.
People interested in becoming a puppy raiser for Guide Dogs for the Blind can find more information at www.puppyguides.com, the website of the Puppy Guides of Snohomish County.
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