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How to Get a 'Furry Fix' Without Owning a Pet

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

guide dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • If you’ve recently lost a pet and aren’t ready yet for a new animal companion, there are many other ways to get your “furry fix” — one way is to volunteer to be a guide dog puppy raiser
  • Volunteer puppy raisers play a huge role in the success of organizations like Guide Dogs for the Blind, The Seeing Eye, the Guide Dog Foundation, and Guiding Eyes for the Blind
  • In a nutshell, puppy raisers are foster families who agree to raise, socialize, and train future guide dogs during their first 12 to 18 months

For those of us who share our lives with dogs, the thought of losing them is hard to bear. And in fact, after the death of a much-loved animal companion, a significant number of people (20% according to one study1) remain without a pet indefinitely.

There are also people who've just lost a pet who find creative ways to care for animals as they continue to work through their grief. Some agree to foster pets who are waiting for forever homes. Others volunteer at their local animal shelter or rescue organization.

And some people decide to become guide dog puppy raisers, essentially agreeing to help train and then give up their puppy — sometimes over and over again. For many of these selfless volunteers, caring for a "canine superstar in the making" helps to heal their broken hearts.

At Guide Dogs for the Blind, No Prior Experience is Necessary to Become a Puppy Raiser

According to non-profit Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB), it takes on average 251 volunteers to help a single puppy become a guide dog, and the journey from chubby Labrador or Golden Retriever puppy (or a Lab/Golden mix) to trustworthy service dog relies heavily on puppy raisers.

GDB has been around since 1942, providing guide dogs to individuals who are blind or have low vision throughout the U.S. and Canada. All services are provided free of charge to clients, including personalized training, ongoing support, and financial assistance for veterinary care, if needed. The organization receives no government funding and relies on the support of donor and volunteers. From the GDB website:

"Puppy raisers are responsible for teaching our puppies good manners and providing socialization experiences for about the first year of the pups' lives. Puppy raisers typically join local puppy raising clubs, wherein they share ideas and information, work on training techniques, and participate in socialization outings.

The pups return to one of our campuses for their formal guidework training when they are between 15 and 17 months old. When the pups graduate as guides, raisers are invited to the graduation ceremonies to celebrate the life-changing partnerships they helped create.

No prior experience is necessary to become a puppy raiser. Our Puppy Raising program is available in the following states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Washington."2

Puppy raisers can have other pets in the home. If an interested volunteer isn't able to commit to raising a puppy full time, he or she can still get involved with a local puppy club and offer, for example, to puppy-sit.

For younger puppy raisers, GDB's program complements many FFA, 4H, home schooling, high school, and college programs. All ages can participate in puppy raising, however primary puppy raisers must be at least 9 years of age.

The Seeing Eye 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."3

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.

Click here to find out Dr. Becker's top tips against seasonal pet allergiesClick here to find out Dr. Becker's top tips against seasonal pet allergies

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 Guide Dog Foundation Volunteers Opt to "Co-Raise" a Puppy

Here's how the Guide Dog 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 when taking home an 8-week old pup; caring for, teaching, and socializing them until they are between 14 and 18 months old.

We encourage them to provide common day-to-day socializing opportunities and exposure to new and diverse surroundings. The puppy raiser will also help teach the puppy basic obedience, such as how to walk on a leash, sit and stay, down, and to come when called.

A well-socialized puppy will have fewer adjustments to make when it comes back to the Foundation for formal training."4

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 who 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."5

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 quote from a volunteer:

"We love the dogs; they are the best of the best. We are so proud when they succeed, and there are many smiling faces at graduation. And a blind person benefits tremendously from our work. But I'm convinced we are getting the better end of this deal. Puppy raising is challenging, but the return on investment is extraordinary. This adventure has brought our family together like little else could."6

An amazing 69% of Guiding Eyes volunteers are repeat raisers, meaning they have fostered more than one puppy. A few have raised more than 30 puppies! According to Guiding Eyes:

"The relationship and bond between the raiser and pup is part of the foundation and bond for all the life lessons a guide dog needs to master. Raisers provide hours of patient teaching and socialization over a 12 to 16-month period.7

All of the raiser's hard work culminates when a blind person receives their priceless gift – a guide dog providing independence, companionship, and mobility."8

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