By Dr. Becker
For most dog guardians, the thought of losing their canine companion is devastating. But giving up a dog they’ve bonded with is exactly what guide dog puppy raisers sign up for – often over and over and over again. Could you do it?
Many of us couldn’t, which is why puppy raisers are so special. For these volunteers, caring for a “canine superstar in the making” is a perfect fit, and we should all be exceptionally thankful for their hard work and dedication.
Puppy Raisers Are Foster Families from All Walks of Life
The Seeing Eye organization delivers 7 to 8-week-old puppies to volunteer puppy raisers who live within driving distance of the organization’s headquarters. According to their website:
“Puppy raisers are foster families, from all walks of life, who nurture and care for their charges until they are about 13- to 16-months-old.
“They teach the puppies basic manners and commands, and socialize them to a variety of social situations and experiences that range from shopping and car rides, to visiting airports and boarding airplanes.”1
Volunteers interested in raising a puppy for The Seeing Eye (or another guide dog organization) must complete an application process, which typically includes an interview to insure the person understands the commitment and can provide a safe home environment for the puppy.
Potential puppy raisers get instruction on how the dogs are trained, and visit with local clubs where puppy raisers meet regularly. Occasionally, an applicant puppy-sits for a current volunteer to get a first-hand idea of what to expect.
Volunteers who successfully complete the application process are matched with a puppy, which may be a Labrador or Golden Retriever, a German Shepherd, a Standard Poodle, or a crossbreed.
The first few weeks at home involve getting the puppies accustomed to their new environment and foster family, and working on house training.
What Happens to Pups Who Don’t Make the Cut?
After a year or so with their foster families, the puppies are returned to The Seeing Eye, where they undergo a period of adjustment to the kennel. They receive a health check, are assigned to an instructor, and spend the next 4 months learning to be a Seeing Eye dog.
At the end of the training period, volunteer puppy raisers are invited to watch their dog walk through town with their instructor.
Once the dog is matched with a new owner, puppy raisers receive a letter from The Seeing Eye telling them the state the dog is living in and a little information about the new owner. (New owners are not identified out of respect for their privacy.)
In the event a puppy does not qualify to be a guide dog, the volunteer who raised the puppy is offered the opportunity to adopt him or her. If the puppy raiser chooses not to take the dog, it will be placed with another adoptive family or in some cases, with law enforcement agencies.
Some Volunteers Opt to “Co-Raise” a Puppy
At the Guide Dog Foundation, approved puppy raisers receive a package of supplies when they pick up their pup, including the following items (some of which I’d find substitutes for, if it was up to me!):
✓ Puppy Manual on raising a Foundation puppy
✓ Yellow Guide Dog Foundation puppy-in-training jacket
✓ Ear cleaner
✓ 5-pound bag of food
✓ Stool sample containers
✓ Collar, ID tag, and leash
✓ Pest preventives
Here’s how the Foundation describes the roles and responsibilities of its volunteer puppy raisers:
“Puppy raisers play a vital role in the development of these future assistance dogs: they spend countless hours caring for, teaching, and socializing the pups. Puppy Raisers are responsible to socialize the puppy as much as they can. They bring the puppy everywhere they go including restaurants, libraries, the mall and as many different environments as possible.
“They also expose it to as many different situations including schools, busy pedestrian areas, other animals, and interaction with children. A well-socialized puppy will have fewer adjustments to make when it comes back to the Foundation for formal training.”2
The Foundation also requires puppy raisers to teach the puppy basic obedience, such as walking on-leash, and commands such as sit, stay, down, and come. Foster families must take their puppies to bi-monthly basic obedience classes conducted by the Foundation.
The Guide Dog Foundation also offers a “co-raising” option for volunteers who can’t commit to raising a puppy full time. Co-raising involves 2 families in the same geographical are who agree to share responsibilities for raising a puppy.
I have several clients that decided to co-raise puppies after their own pets died, because they weren’t ready to commit to another dog, but missed day to day life with a canine companion. Fostering a guide dog puppy was the perfect fit for them. Here’s how Melissa Harrington, a regional manager for the Foundation and a puppy raiser herself, describes her role to VetStreet:
“We are not trainers. We’re just regular people who are socializing these dogs and doing some very basic commands. “If we’ve done our part right … they’re comfortable with screaming kids, shiny floors and escalators … and the trainers can give them what they need so they can work.”3
'A Real Gift of Love'
According to the Guiding Eyes for the Blind organization, raising a puppy for them is “a real gift of love.”
“A puppy is not born a guide dog,” says the Guiding Eyes website, “but created through the dedication and commitment of an entire team of individuals. The Puppy Raiser is the pivotal member of that team.”4
Sixty percent of Guiding Eyes volunteers are repeat raisers, meaning they have fostered more than one puppy. A few have raised as many as 35 puppies! According to Guiding Eyes:
“The relationship and bond between the raiser and pup will become the foundation for all the life lessons a guide dog needs to master. “Raisers provide hours of patient teaching and numerous socialization journeys over a 12 to 16 month period, before they return a well-socialized young adult dog to Guiding Eyes training staff.
“All of the raiser’s hard work culminates when a blind person receives their priceless gift – a guide dog providing independence, companionship, and mobility.” 5