Okay. So my motives weren't entirely altruistic when I signed on to be a “puppy socializer” for Guiding Eyes for the Blind. I had just learned that I wouldn’t be able to breed Callie, my Golden Retriever, as I had hoped, and I was feeling bereft. I needed a puppy fix—bad. My three daughters were clamoring for their own dog (Callie, they pointed out, was mine). This program seemed to offer the best of all worlds: an endless supply of puppies without the chaos, mess and expense of adding three more permanent pets to our menagerie. That it was a good deed was a secondary consideration.
The purpose of “puppy socialization” is to help dogs develop the confidence they need to become full-fledged Guiding Eyes companions, I learned at the orientation session offered to new socializers. Our job is to take two or more pups at a time into our home for four or five days at a stretch and simply play with them, love them, keep them clean. Guiding Eyes provides everything else: a travel crate, playpen, food, bowls, leashes and, most important, a number to call for any question that comes up. Pups that have been home-socialized are more apt to pass the first stage of tests designed to weed out those who do not have the potential to ultimately become guide dogs. Those who pass go on to puppyraisers for their first phase of training. Those who do not are released to the public as pets—there is a twoand- a-half-year waiting list for the “release” dogs. In anticipation of our first visit last winter, we stockpiled newspapers and paper towels, puppy-proofed the kitchen, and dug out Callie’s old puppy toys. Then, for some reason, I felt that the whole family should share in the experience of picking the puppies up from the breeding facility. It was not the positive bonding experience I had envisioned.
Poor Callie was so agitated by the pathetic whimperings of pups unhappy with their first car trip that she started drooling, creating little puddles on the car seat. Then the girls overreacted when the pups did what pups do, and added their own festive note to the atmosphere with exaggerated retching noises. When we finally arrived home, Callie shot off for the woods, desperate to be away from all of us. The girls vanished too, only to miraculously reappear as soon as the crate and its inhabitants were clean. Once released to the kitchen, the pups relieved themselves yet again in virtually every nook and cranny. They nipped and jumped and peed with astonishing enthusiasm. And we had obviously forgotten how sharp those little teeth could be. The girls were squeamish about cleaning up the messes, the cat was outraged by this intrusion and I was wondering what on earth I had gotten myself into. But after a few hours,we hit our stride—the girls fell in love, the pups calmed down and Callie finally returned, tiny icicles hanging off her muzzle.
Since that first episode,my daughters have become experts in the socialization process.We have learned that dressing puppies up in doll clothes is not only amusing but helps them get used to being handled; that all the puppies preferred Gregorian chanting to Britney Spears and that none of them was particularly interested in Nintendo, although exposure to all kinds of noise is beneficial.
Occasionally, to see how successful we’ve been at our job, I watch the Guiding Eyes puppy evaluators perform their tests and find myself silently cheering them on: Don’t be afraid, it’s just an open umbrella…go check it out…No, no! Don’t hide under the tester’s feet! Our success rate is quite high, I’m happy to report.
No matter how much I intellectualize it, we always return our charges to the kennel with mixed emotions. We love that we’ve had a small part in helping these dogs move toward their ultimate goal, but saying good-bye is hard, even after just a few days’ visit. As I gave a final snuggle to yet another of my favorites, I asked a veteran volunteer if anyone ever got so attached to one of the pups that they refused to give the puppy back. “That,” she informed me with a smile, “is what we call a puppy raiser.”
Guiding Eyes for the Blind of Yorktown Heights, N.Y., is a nonprofit organization that provides professionally bred and trained guide dogs for the blind and visually impaired. For more information on the puppy socialization program, call 845.878.3749 or visit guidingeyes.org.