By Ranny Green
Photos courtesy of Jerry & Lois photography
As a crowd of spectators and other competitors gather around in awe, Janine Prindle slowly moves through the Rally ring course, sizing up the challenges awaiting her and 5-year-old Cranberry several minutes later at the Seattle Kennel Club Dog Show.
Prindle, of Enumclaw, and her yellow Labrador retriever are atypical of what you see in this -level of competition. She is legally blind ¬– her field of vision is approximately 15 degrees (180 degrees is normal) – and Cranberry is a Guide Dog.
Prindle places high in Rally competition, she explains, only because her score is high, not because of a fast time. Unlike agility, there are no stations where the dog has to walk above the ground or scamper through a tube. In the Rally course, dogs in the Advanced and Excellent classes have at least one jump, set at a rather low height.
Several different behaviors are mandated throughout the exercise, and each station has the dog/handler team do one or more. These are designed to assure that everything flows smoothly from one station to the next.
The dog and handler team is scored on how accurately it performs the course. A handler can talk and encourage the dog through the course with no penalties as long as he/she does not touch the animal. The Novice course is done on leash and the Advanced and Excellent courses are off-leash.
“When I do my walk-through, I’m familiarizing myself with the course path and making certain I know what to do at each station. I don’t memorize what each sign says, but I need to get pretty close to read each. If I have any question, I will ask the judge.”
To establish a comfort zone with the layout, Prindle uses every available moment allowed for the walk-through, then watches fellow competitors ahead of her. Beforehand, she informs the judge that she is visually impaired. “I also ask that if I appear to be lost, to please give me directions to the next station or physically turn my body in the right direction. Most judges are happy to do that.” Her biggest fear when competing in Rally is that she will miss a station because she didn’t see a sign.
At the Seattle show, she and Cranberry earned the final leg of their Rally Excellent title with a score of 95 out of 100 March 12, then followed that up with a 93 the following day.
Next up for the pair is a bid to gain a Companion Dog Excellent (CDX) title. “I am also working on Utility exercises in hopes Cranberry may become the first working Guide Dog to earn a Utility title,” says Prindle.
Being around Guide Dogs is nothing new for this Elk Ridge Elementary School (White River School District) teacher. For more than a quarter century, she has devoted a large portion of her life to Guide Dogs, from puppy raiser to ironically recipient.
Between 1985 and 2007, the Prindle family (Janine, husband Jack and sons Doug and Aaron) has raised 30 puppies – mostly German shepherds and Labrador retrievers — for Guide Dogs for the Blind and two for Summit Assistance Dogs. About half graduated.
“I’ve pretty much come full circle,” she says. But lately she is breaking new ground with Cranberry. The pair may be the first Guide Dog team to earn an American Kennel Club Rally Excellent title, however the national registry does not maintain records of handlers’ disabilities, according to Larry Warsoff, AKC field staff executive for Obedience and Rally events.
“Cranberry has really enriched my life,” Prindle explains. “She’s my Velcro dog and is with me 24/7. She sleeps with me, rests under my desk at school all day and is right alongside me on the bus.”
Cranberry is the first Labrador retriever Prindle has owned. But after their quick successes, that’s the only Guide Dog breed she sees herself with in the future. “And being yellow really helps visibly,” she adds, “versus a black coat.”
“I don’t see vivid colors,” she explains. “Before Cranberry, I used a white cane for about a year, while I was on the waiting list for a dog. A blind person must have good cane skills before he or she can get a dog.”
Asked to prioritize the No. 1 benefit Cranberry has supplied her, Prindle replied quickly, “Without a doubt, self-confidence. I have no reluctance moving about outside the home with her. I can still get around my house and school unassisted if I’m careful.”
With that added confidence comes a faster pace and safer feel when traveling to new sites. There have been a number of cases where she had had to put her emergency skills to use.
“One of those came on the first walk I had with her. We were moving along a Gresham (Ore.) sidewalk at a good pace and Cranberry came to a screeching halt. My trainer was right alongside and told me to immediately praise my dog and that this was my first “traffic check.”
“I looked up and to the left and there was a car coming out of a bank drive-thru that neither my trainer nor I saw. Cranberry saw the car and did exactly what she was supposed to do. I got down on my knees, hugged her and began to cry.”
As the two have bonded since those early days, Prindle has learned that Cranberry is virtually unflappable. “Nothing bothers her other than when the vacuum cleaner gets too close. She doesn’t like it when dogs she’s unfamiliar with get in her face, but she interacts with them fine at dog shows. Cranberry has been attacked twice and been run up on several times by unleashed dogs in public, not at dog shows, which has created anxiety for her when unleashed dogs approach. She loves pups in our puppy-raising club, my other dog Corey (a 3-year-old Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever) and other Guide Dogs.”
At school, where she teaches remedial mathematic s and reading, Prindle stations Cranberry on a blanket near her desk, where the dog remains most of the day. “The kids are curious about Cranberry, but respect my request to leave her alone. Some of the smaller ones don’t even know she is in the room. My fear is that if kids start getting permission to pet her, they will want to per her all the time. When Cranberry is in the halls, the kids know to leave her alone, even better than the parents. “
Rally and obedience competition nicely complement Cranberry’s daily routine of school and home activity.
Treats are the No. 1 perk for Cranberry from Rally training, which has been minimal. “With all of the training and distraction work I have done with her in Guide Dog and competition Obedience classes, it has covered most everything I want to do with her in Rally. We are still working with attention when heeling, which is kind of opposite of what she does in guide work.”
Prindle’s involvement with Guide Dogs began in the mid-1980s, when she talked to a 4-H leader at the King County Fair, after observing several children with Guide Dog puppies in training. “I had been life-long dog owner and that prompted me to think maybe we could do the same.
“Our son Doug was 8 and we thought that would be a good opportunity to see if he could make the long-term commitment of raising a puppy. Then our younger son, Aaron, wanted to get involved and we found ourselves raising two at a time. It taught the entire family about responsibility, commitment and personal growth.”
Kathy Lang, longtime Seattle area (Family Dog Training Center in Kent) dog trainer and friend of Prindle, says, “Janine’s accomplishments in competition Obedience are amazing. All of her dogs have consistently earned high level titles. And Janine has always been an outstanding trainer, working with patience, praise and precision on complex training exercises.
“Over the years as her vision has deteriorated, she has handled dog training and life’s challenges with grace and a positive attitude. When she first approached me with the idea of helping her train Cranberry for AKC Obedience trials I jumped at the opportunity. If anyone could put Rally and Obedience titles on a working Guide Dog, it would be Janine. We have worked together to come up with an approach that allows Cranberry to lead this dual life and to minimize confusion between her two jobs. “
For example, the most interesting challenge has been teaching Cranberry to do the Figure 8 heeling exercise, says Lang. When Cranberry is working with Prindle in such close proximity to the human posts, the dog isn’t certain if she should follow Prindle around the posts or lead her around the posts. Contributing to this confusion is the judge’s order of “forward” given to the handler to begin heeling. “Since that is the same command Prindle gives Cranberry when she wants her to guide her forward,” explains Lang, “we’re working hard to help Cranberry understand that Janine’s command to heel takes priority over the judge’s command to go forward!
“I continue to marvel at them every time I see them in the ring. They’re an inspiration for all of us to stay committed to our goals.”