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Guide dogs trained to handle plane emergencies

  • Story Highlights
  • Simulated airline flight helps train guide dogs for the blind
  • Dogs trained to stay in confined space, help human partners escape from plane
  • Animals that are easily spooked are "career changed," usually adopted
  • Preparing for the unexpected is name of the game, pilot says
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By Jim Spellman
CNN
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DENVER, Colorado (CNN) -- Guide dogs for the blind go everywhere with their human partners, but when their destination is a plane ride away, it's not always so easy.

Capt. Robert McKay says the purpose of the training program is to prepare for the unexpected.

Gilligan, a 10-month-old Labrador retriever, calmly sits aboard the Boeing 767 fuselage.

To make the skies a little friendlier, and safer, a pack of guide dogs in training gathered at a United Airlines training facility to take a simulated flight -- a flight with a surprise ending.

"The main purpose was to get our dogs used to boarding and deplaning and to getting into a seat and curling up into the space allowed for them," says Danny Henderson, who volunteers raising puppies to become guide dogs for the blind.

Henderson volunteers with Have Paws Will Travel, the group that organized the trip to the Denver training facility.

At her side is Gilligan, a 10-month-old yellow Labrador retriever puppy. Henderson takes Gilligan everywhere with her: shopping, sporting events, even to church. All the while she is preparing the pup to work as a guide dog by exposing him to all of the experiences a guide dog will have.

If Gilligan does well, he will be matched with a blind partner and the pair will go through four to five months of more extensive training on the California campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind, a non-profit that supplies blind people with guide dogs free of charge.

Inside the United Airlines facility sits a real fuselage from a Boeing 767 jet. About 20 dogs and their handlers file in, the dogs nestling under the seats. Gilligan is curious at first but quickly loses interest in his new environment and rests his head on the floor with a sigh.

A few aisles up sits Annette Bossert and her year-old dog Ludlow. He nervously looks from side to side between Bossert's legs, not too sure what's going on.

"He's what we call a 'soft dog' in that he is very sensitive to certain environments," says Bossert. "He might react a little bit more than some dogs, showing a little bit of fear, a little bit of anxiety."

If a dog is too easily spooked it might be "career changed," and instead of moving on to work with a blind person they will be adopted, often by the volunteer handler.

The doors of the fuselage close and the familiar rumble of an airplane taxiing begins. The dogs stay in place, seemingly disinterested in the mock flight.

And then out go the lights! Video Watch the dogs in action aboard the plane »

"Brace! Brace!" shouts a flight attendant. The plane is crash landing. The alarm blares, the cabin jolts from side to side.

"Get out! Leave everything!"

Everyone must evacuate the plane as quickly as possible, dogs included. One by one, the dogs lead their handlers to safety. Amazingly, not a single dog panics, or even barks.

"I noticed a lot of the dogs probably did better than the people. They were very relaxed, business as usual," says Danny Henderson with a laugh while Gilligan stands obediently at her side. "He's been doing great. He's a very smart dog, he's learned very quickly. I think he'll do great."

And how did Ludlow, the sensitive "soft dog," do?

"He did great," says Bossert. "This is awesome. I may not have a chance to fly with him so for him to just see the cabin environment and know he has to go into a confined space and be calm is good for him."

According to Guide Dogs for the Blind, about 10,000 blind people in the United States use guide dogs, and many of them are frequent fliers.

"The first time they fly they are like: 'This is a little odd,' " says Aerial Gilbert, who is blind and flies with her German shepherd Splash several times a month. She thinks the training will help the pups become better guide dogs.

"Things they learn as a puppy are no big deal. It's harder when they get older."

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At the helm of the mock 767 is Capt. Robert Mackay. He's in charge of training for United Airlines and still flies regularly. He watches the exercise carefully. He says the odds of a plane crash with a guide dog and human partner on board are rare, but preparing for the unexpected is the name of the game.

"Having dogs on board the airplane and blind people on the airplane represent a special challenge for us," he says. "This is all about the 'what if,' risk management, being ready in the unlikely event that this would occur."

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