Caution:Dog Lover On Board

About four times a year, Geri Owens rolls into Phoenix in a dusty gray van that's practically exploding with yapping puppies. The pups, mostly golden retrievers and German shepherds, are future guide dogs for blind people. The dogs are owned by Guide Dogs for the Blind, Inc., a fifty-year-old San Rafael, California, company that's trained more than 4,000 seeing-eye dogs.

For eight years, Owens has chauffeured young canines with a calling all across the western United States, delivering them to 4-H Club members for a year's worth of "socialization," or getting used to people.

But these dogs have already learned a lot about humans from Owens, who treats them as equals. She always takes her own dogs on her travels to keep her company as well as to "baby-sit" the seeing-eye puppies. She even lets a dog or two sit on the front seat with her. "Geri just loves dogs for who they are," says Lynne Shaw, a San Rafael co-worker.

During her periodic visits to Phoenix, Owens drops off an armful of pups with local 4-H'ers. The kids keep the dogs for a year and teach them to be loving and not to mess the carpet and such. When the year is up, Owens returns and hauls the dogs back to California where they undergo rigorous guide-dog training.

Owens has logged more than 350,000 miles while carting more than 1,000 pups from their birthing kennels in San Rafael to Arizona, Oregon, Nevada, Washington, Utah, Idaho, and Colorado.

You'd think that all this canine-carting would drive a person nuts, but the 29-year-old Owens was calm and collected a couple of weeks ago when she came to Phoenix to drop off six puppies.

"They're real quiet when we're on the road,~" she explained as she removed several soaked copies of the Marin Independent Journal from the cages in the back of the van.

It's not too surprising that Owens wanted to be a vet when she was a kid. But she got sidetracked in high school when she got a summer job swabbing out the San Rafael guide-dog kennels. She liked the kennels so much that after she graduated, she moved into an apartment attached to one of the kennels.

Owens, who has four dogs of her own, likes this cozy arrangement. And if a particular kennel dog is lonely, Owens can always take it along with her own dogs to the company office while she catches up on paperwork. She's thankful she can bring her own dogs on her trips, too. That way, the long hours on the road aren't quite so lonely.

There's Witch, a terrier. And Gypsy, a German shepherd. And Blackie, an ex-guide dog who underwent a "career change" because he displayed "very weak recovery" when he encountered other dogs while on the job. And Bambi, a retired breeder who used to birth litters and litters of future guide dogs. Sometimes, one of Owens' dogs will sit in the front seat and peer out the windshield as they roar across the desert.

Bambi et al. were especially helpful last year when the van broke down on I-10, at the Toltec interchange south of Phoenix, in what Owens now refers to as her most harrowing experience on the road. "It was 117 degrees in Toltec that day, and the van just stopped," she reminisced as she rubbed absently at puppy-claw scratches on her sandaled feet. "And what I remember most about Toltec is that there is no shade in Toltec. I left my dogs in the van to watch over the puppies and found this 7-Eleven store and bought all these bags of ice. I put half a bag underneath each puppy and half a bag underneath my dogs, and we waited until the Triple A guy came to fix the van."

As it turned out, Triple A was fifteen minutes late, she said. Her eyes blazed at the mere recollection of such currish insensitivity. "I think he was fifteen minutes late on purpose just because I told him I had dogs with me."

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Terry Greene