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Devoted to dogs

As the coffee grinder whirs and patrons rush in and out of a bustling Starbucks, a service dog in training sleeps on the tile floor while its trainer, Charlie Dibb of Eagle Point, sings its praises.

"I swear they don't have spines," Dibb joked as he admired the Labrador, named Elliott, and the dog's ability to not only remain calm but sleep in the busy store.

Elliott is the fourth dog that Dibb, who graduates Friday from St. Mary's School, has trained for Guide Dogs for the Blind. Dibb has devoted more than 11,000 hours for the nonprofit organization since his freshman year, and because of that he is one of two recipients of Mary Francis of Assisi Award for Community Service, as well as the U.S. President's Lifetime Achievement Award for Community Service.

To Dibb, the awards are nice, but community service is simply part of his daily routine.

"The hours start to feel like just a number after a certain amount of time," he said. "It stacks up pretty quickly."

Dibb explained that St. Mary's School students must devote 100 hours in community service over their junior and senior years, but he wanted to find something meaningful for the requirement.

"Most people try to shoot a bit higher than (100 hours) for various awards, scholarship opportunities, et cetera," Dibb said. "At the start of high school, I was just looking for something that would mean something."

Dibb said training guide dogs requires a high level of commitment.

"Everyone in the family needs to be on board," he said. It helps to have a backup, Dibb added, particularly as a high school student, so when necessary, he leans on his mother, Sandee Dibb.

"If I need to do a lab at school, I can't bring him with me," he said. "On the other hand, you can't be a complete homebody."

Dibb takes a puppy bred for the program when it's about 6 weeks old and acclimates it to respond calmly to stimuli that typically excites an animal, such as groups of strangers, restaurants or traffic. Over the course of a year to a year-and-a-half, the dogs are prepared for the next training phase.

"Our job is to desensitize them," Dibb said. "(We're) gradually increasing the stressors until they're lying down in a coffee shop."

Even with careful breeding and volunteers' best efforts, not every dog becomes a guide dog, Dibb said. About 45 percent of dogs make it to the next step, and only one of Dibb's dogs, Reuben, is currently helping the blind. His family adopted the first dog he trained, Montego.

"They're very stringent about which dogs get to make it into the program," said Dibb, who is thinking about studying biology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., where he plans to start in the fall.

"I'm doing this more as community service and a side thing than a career path," he said as he handed Elliott a treat for keeping calm in the coffee shop.

Once he heads off to college, he intends to retire his leash and treat bag, at least for his freshman year.

"College is going to be many new experiences," he said. "The whole town smells ever-so-slightly of sweet onions."

Reach newsroom assistant Nick Morgan at nmorgan@mailtribune.com.

St. Mary's School graduate Charlie Dibb has put in more than 11,000 hours of community service in training guide dogs such as Elliott. Mail Tribune / Nick Morgan