Picture your dog in a high school cafeteria at lunchtime. A food fight breaks out. Muffins fly, meatballs roll. Would your dog watch with stoic composure? Silvia Lange, of Nicasio, Calif., tells the story of a teenage puppy raiser in her local Canine Companions for Independence group who found herself in this situation. “I doubt many other service dogs are socialized to food fights. It was a lucky break.” The puppy in question reportedly handled both the temptation and the bedlam with aplomb. And Lange, an eight-year veteran of puppy raising, knows that a wide range of experiences is key to preparing a puppy for life as a service dog.
The subject of service dogs—whom the ADA defines as “any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability”—triggers predictable reactions in dog lovers. Tribute is paid to the good-naturedness of the dogs. Admiration is expressed for the ingenuity of the trainers. All very true, of course. Service dogs often spring from marvelously mellow-tempered parents and have gone through intensive and complex training, carried out by gifted animal trainers. But if the first step on the journey to a great service dog is careful breeding, and if the last mile is training at the highest level, the considerable distance between the two is socialization.
According to Dr. Ian Dunbar, socialization is “the developmental process whereby puppies and adolescent dogs familiarize themselves with their infinitely varied and ever-changing social and physical environment.” In layman’s terms: Anything you want a dog to calmly accept as an adult, you must introduce him to repeatedly and in a positive manner during the first 18 months of his life.
Consider what that means for puppies in service dog programs: They have to ride in cars, buses and trains; perhaps do some sailing; and ideally, become familiar with an airplane cabin or two. They must visit restaurants and hotels as well as libraries, movie theaters, shops and supermarkets. They need to be utterly comfortable with crowds, escalators, fountains, skateboards, strollers, toddlers, and construction noise. They have to go to school, go to the office, go to the basketball game. And naturally, the home environment must be as mundane to them as their own noses. The vacuum cleaner? So what? The next-door neighbor’s cat? Couldn’t care less. But most service dogs are born on the campuses of the organizations that train and place them. They first open their eyes inside a kennel, not a living room.
That’s where puppy raisers enter the equation. They are volunteers—school-age children or retirees or anyone in between—who give puppies loving temporary homes. What’s more, they teach their young charges basic manners and arrange for a steady stream of educational experiences. When you see an adolescent dog wearing the telltale service dog jacket, there’s likely to be a puppy raiser at the other end of the leash.
A puppy raiser’s responsibilities differ from one program to another, but some requirements are practically universal. For example, most organizations ask their puppy raisers to feed a particular brand of food, use only an approved style of training, have the puppy sleep indoors and agree to provide daily exercise and socialization. Costs for food, transport to and from training classes, and veterinary checkups rest with the puppy raiser, too. The duration varies, but 12 to 18 months is common, and the work usually begins when the puppy is eight weeks old. In return for all this, the organization provides ongoing support, training and community.
Silvia Lange, who began raising puppies as a retirement project, was unsure at first about taking on such a big commitment. What if she wanted to travel, or even move? “That was before I realized what a great network of people Canine Companions have nationwide,” she said. “I could move anywhere in the U.S. and find fellow puppy raisers to connect with. And we all dog sit for one another.”
Smaller service dog organizations also tend vigorously to their volunteer flock. “We couldn’t do what we do without our volunteers,” says Jorjan Powers, communications director at the Assistance Dog Institute at the Bergin University of Canine Studies, whose program depends on a handful of dedicated puppy raisers. “We want them to feel supported.”