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Service Dogs Train on SEPTA

In the hustle and bustle of daily commuting, SEPTA riders can be seen making a mad dash to where they need to be. From time to time you'll also see four-legged creatures helping those riders get to their destinations. These escorts, known as service animals, are trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities.

Leashed or harnessed service animals are always welcome in SEPTA facilities and on SEPTA vehicles. As a matter of fact, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which celebrates its 20th Anniversary this week, businesses and organizations that serve the public are required to allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals into the areas where customers are allowed.

Committed to assisting customers traveling with service animals, SEPTA actively supports the many local organizations that train dogs to bring a new level of mobility, safety and self-sufficiency to disabled men and women.

Regional Rail Transportation Manager Larry Maples oversees these types of trips and makes sure that the travel experience is convenient by assisting customers involved with training service animals to navigate public transportation.

Coordinators and puppies in training from The Seeing Eye, a guide dog school based in Moorestown, N.J., recently traveled aboard a Landsdale/Doylestown Regional Rail Line to Center City as part of their training program to prepare the puppies to be guide dogs for the blind. The coordinators represented the organization's Montgomery County 4H Club.

"We think it's great that SEPTA allows us to do this. It educates the dog on what it's going to experience in the real world," said Seeing Eye Coordinator Loretta Wieckowski. "Our job is to take them to as many places as possible to condition them to noise, crowds and different surroundings. Public transportation is an important mode of transportation for all, so trains and buses are great learning experiences."

The student puppies, Gigi, a 15-month-old white Lab; Ernest, a 10-month-old Golden Retriever; and Winston, a 6-month old black Lab, were accompanied by Seeing Eye Coordinators Barb Connor, Marilyn Boone and Wieckowski. "The dogs were very calm and sat very nicely, Wieckowski noted. "They behaved well for puppies."

"We raise these puppies as our own and when they are ready to go its bitter sweet. It's like sending your child off to college, sad to see them go but very proud of their accomplishment," Wieckowski added.

Executive Director Canine Partners for Life Darlene Sullivan in Chester County has done two "graduation trips" on SEPTA Regional Rail each year for many years. She trains animals to assist sighted individuals with seizure disorder, mobility or balance problems, hearing loss, and various other disabilities where assistance in the form of four paws can make all the difference.

"SEPTA is just fantastic. The Regional Rail staff take care of us so well," said Sullivan. That Larry (Maples) is amazing, he knows exactly how to make it work--he is so helpful."

Three years ago, at its annual awards ceremony, SEPTA Advisory Committee (SAC) and Freedom Valley Disability Center gave Richard Hanratty, Chief of Rail Transportation, a special award of merit for his outstanding and continuous support of service animal training on SEPTA.

"It was a great honor to have been recognized for supporting these wonderful organizations. SEPTA is dedicated to consistently providing superior customer service for all of our passengers," said Hanratty.

Seeing Eye Coordinators Barb Connor, Loretta Wieckowski and Marilyn Boone with student puppies at Market East Station.

Connor and Winston practice climbing stairs while exiting Market East Station.

Seeing Eye Coordinators walking through a train station.

Weickowski familiarizing Gigi with her new transit surroundings.