Jenny Collins of Portland, OR, and her Labrador Retriever, Patience, a certified therapy dog, spent many happy years together. They visited families at the Ronald McDonald House, prison inmates during visitation events, young readers in Reading with Rover programs and college students preparing for exams. After a long and happy life, Patience died in July 2017, leaving Jenny devastated. Knowing she wasn’t ready to bring another dog into her life, Jenny decided to volunteer with dogs as a way to help fill the void.
She quickly found the perfect match: Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB), a nonprofit organization created in 1942 to breed, train and pair service dogs with visually impaired people to help them achieve greater safety, mobility, and independence. Provided free of charge to the client, each dog represents an investment of $100,000 over the life of a team, a cost that is funded 100 percent by private donations. GDB provides all services free of charge to their clients, including the cost of transportation and room and board while clients undertake two weeks of training with their new guide dogs, annual visits, an alumni association, and veterinary care to make sure teams are thriving. If issues arise, the organization provides an instructor or field manager to help resolve them.
The transformation of GDB’s carefully bred roly-poly puppies—Labrador Retrievers, Goldens and Lab/ Golden mixes—into reliable service dogs depends heavily on the puppy raisers who start each new puppy on his or her long path toward training and graduation as a service dog.
Staff and volunteers help the canine moms raise their litters through the first eight weeks at the organization’s San Rafael, Calif., campus. At two months, the puppies are ready to go to individual homes; most are transported on the Puppy Truck to the various locations where volunteer puppy raisers meet their puppies for the first time. After roughly a year in a home environment in which a clearly defined protocol is followed, the young dogs go into formal training at a GDB campus in California or Oregon.
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Not surprisingly, given the nature of the work, volunteers are thoroughly vetted by GDB, including a home visit to meet everyone involved and make sure the setting is pet-safe. “The puppies need consistency from their raisers,” says Jenny, “so [the raisers] need to attend the training meetings, read all the documents and watch the videos. It’s probably a 40-hour commitment before taking in your first puppy.”
Typically, a new volunteer eases into the work by acting as a puppy-sitter for dogs of varying ages and training stages. “We want to set people up for success,” says Jenny, “to let them see what it’s like to have a puppy in their home before they commit to becoming a puppy raiser.”
Jenny says it was two months before she was eligible to do anything hands-on with a puppy, and recalls being frustrated because she was so eager to jump in. In retrospect, she understands why the more careful approach is necessary, and that raisers’ experience may vary, as many puppy-sitters now do hands-on work at puppyclub meetings. Even now, Jenny admits that she has questions and doubts about what she’s doing.
Luckily, she describes herself as a “follow-the-rules” sort of person, a plus given the time and effort GDB has spent creating their training program. They know what works, and their training methods have resulted in a significant increase in the success of working guide dogs. As a side benefit, volunteers learn lessons they can apply to their own pet dogs.
In some cases—like Jenny’s, because she works full-time—a puppy raiser partners with a puppy starter, who takes the two-monthold for eight weeks and oversees most of the pup’s early basic training while finishing the vaccination schedule that started at the San Rafael campus. “I’m grateful beyond words for the puppy-starter families because otherwise, I could not do this,” says Jenny.
There are 180-plus GDB puppy raising clubs across 10 western states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah and Washington. Each of those states has at least one club, and new volunteers must join a club in order to become a puppy raiser. Puppy raisers are responsible for teaching the puppies good manners and providing socialization experiences for about the first year of the pups’ lives. They commit to attending twice-monthly meetings with the puppy for foundational training and support, and, once or twice each month, to taking the puppy on socialization outings to stimulating environments where guide dogs might eventually work, including malls, grocery stores, public transportation and restaurants.
This is the aspect of the program that Jenny loves best. “I volunteer to help coordinate outings since I love being a ‘social director,’” Jenny says. She managed to get donated tickets to a minor-league baseball game so several puppy raisers and their pups could attend. Another time, she arranged a transit outing, creating a loop where the puppy raisers and their dogs rode an aerial tram, a street car, light rail and a bus.
Raising a Guide Dog
The first GDB puppy Jenny raised was named Fizzy, and she came to Jenny when she was four months old after spending time with a puppy-starter family.
Jenny says that when she first joined her puppy-raising club, she didn’t have any interest in sharing the task with a co-raiser. “I wanted to be independent in this, and so I was reluctant at first to share. But the more I learned about what was involved in raising one of these puppies, it became apparent that co-raising—for me and most people, and for the dog—is highly beneficial.”
To “co-parent,” Jenny found a compatible family within her club. During Fizzy’s yearlong training, she swapped homes every Tuesday. “I would take Fizzy to work with me on Monday and Tuesday, hand her off to the other family and have the rest of the week and weekend off,” says Jenny. “The next week, no puppy on Monday and Tuesday, then Wednesday through Friday I’d bring her to work, have her over the weekend, take her to work the next Monday and Tuesday, and so on. It allowed me to schedule work obligations for when I didn’t have Fizzy. And it was like having a built-in puppy-sitter if I was going out of town for a weekend. I did the same for my co-raiser family. It ended up working out pretty evenly over the year we had Fizzy.”
As Jenny points out, the biggest benefit of the co-raising model is that the puppy gets to experience a broader range of environments. Jenny’s co-raising family includes a husband, a wife who teaches kindergarten and took Fizzy to work with her, and a daughter, so her experiences there were different than in Jenny’s home. Jenny was more likely to take Fizzy out into the big world for activities.
Jenny adds that raising a puppy is demanding, especially during the early weeks, when they’re high-energy and prone to chewing everything in reach. When Fizzy was with her at work, she was tethered in Jenny’s workspace with a bed, bowl of water and chew toys, but didn’t have access to the entire office. Puppies are gradually given freedom at home so that by the time they return to a GDB campus for formal training, they can be trusted alone in one or two rooms for up to an hour.
Classroom practice is important, but behaviors are proofed on the street. Recently, Jenny had an unexpected opportunity to test her new puppy’s ability to resist unauthorized food, and the puppy passed with flying colors. “We were standing near a chicken bento food cart, waiting for my lunch order. Suddenly, from inside, I hear ‘nice doggie’ and chunks of chicken come flying out and land at Fan’s feet. She didn’t budge from her sit; she just looked at the chicken on the ground and up at me. It was amazing! I gave her a jackpot of kibble and lots of praise and petting. I had to explain to the food cart employee that even though she didn’t have her jacket on, these dogs are never allowed to eat food off the ground or offered to them by other people.”
Toys and Toileting
Raising a GDB puppy isn’t like raising a family pet. If they pass all their training successfully, these puppies will have great responsibilities. They need to be calm; ignore distractions; and remain focused on their handler, keeping them safe from harm. They’re not allowed to play fetch; in fact, there are no balls in their toybox because as adults, they can’t be distracted by things that move fast in front of them. Instead, they burn off their energy with games of tug and sturdy chew toys. Puppies as well as working guides have many opportunities to play.
One of the bigger challenges, says Jenny, is house-training. Inappropriate relieving (going when or where they’re not supposed to) takes dogs out of the running as guide dogs. “We train them to relieve on command, on leash and only on hard surfaces,” explains Jenny, who uses a patio in her back yard for this purpose. “It’s a skill, building toward working as a guide dog. If we go on walks, they’re brief, and only after the dog has relieved at home before we start; if they don’t, we don’t go for the walk.”
Puppy raisers teach the command do your business as a cue that it’s time for the puppy to go potty. They also take the puppy’s guide-dog-in-training vest off, another signal that they’re not “working” and it’s okay to relieve themselves. Far more than a matter of convenience, this training ensures that, as adult working dogs matched with visually impaired handlers, they won’t lose their focus because they’re searching for a place to relieve themselves, or confuse their handler by moving off the intended path to do their business.
In addition to teaching appropriate relieving, volunteers help the pups learn basic commands such as sit, down, stand, wait, stay, come, go to bed, let’s go and that’s enough (meaning, we’re done playing tug).
Jenny says there’s no leave-it command, which she initially found surprising, because her Lab Patience would scarf up all sorts of nasty things if Jenny didn’t see them first. But as she discovered, that particular command wasn’t required; instead, the puppies are trained to completely ignore things on the ground by rewarding them with kibble when they do. They practice this skill until they’re reliable.
In the past, puppy raisers were not allowed to reward the puppies with food; again, it was important that as working dogs, they were not vulnerable to distraction. Over time, GDB’s training techniques have evolved to include making greater use of food as positive reinforcement. Now, puppies can be rewarded with a piece of kibble, but only the same kibble they eat at meals and only by hand from the person holding their leash.
While raising a puppy, volunteers allow them a little bit of canine interaction, but most contact is with other GDB puppies during those twice-monthly club meetings, where they work on proper dog greetings (sniffing only). They don’t go to off-leash dog parks or greet strange dogs on the street. However, some puppy raisers and handlers have other pet dogs in the home (or maybe even a retired guide dog), and in those situations, the puppies can play in controlled ways with the older dog.
“We make sure the puppies have some exposure to other dogs,” says Jenny, including occasionally trading puppies within the club so a puppy who hasn’t spent time with a pet dog or cat in the house gets the chance.
A New Direction
Soon after volunteering with GDB and before Fizzy came into her life, Jenny was offered the opportunity to “puppy-sit” Kona for a period of six weeks. Jenny’s ability to take this on so early is testament to her earlier work with Patience as a therapy dog and her familiarity with Labs.
Because Kona had one or two “inappropriate relieving” episodes during her early training, she was spending an extended time with puppy raisers. “I took Kona, thinking to myself, ‘Don’t screw her up!’ I knew if the inappropriate relieving happened again, she would be career-changed, meaning she wouldn’t make it as a guide dog for a blind person. She was doing great until one day while she was wearing her vest—a signal to her she was working—we approached a building and she pooped just outside the door. I was devastated because I knew it meant she would not become a guide dog. I broke down, thinking, Don’t cut her, cut me! I briefly thought about not telling—no one else saw—but I knew I had to. Being a guide dog for the blind isn’t for all dogs.”
As it turns out, Kona was selected for the GDB’s K-9 Buddy program, in which career-changed dogs are placed with visually impaired kids under age 18 as pets/ companions, so the child learns how to take care of and interact with a dog. A dog can also contribute to heightening of sensory development, motivating a child to learn and enhancing self-esteem. Kona ended up with a great family and a visually impaired boy who does agility with her.
Jenny says volunteers can be as involved as they want, from offering to puppy-sit on occasion to being a puppy starter or puppy raiser. After Jenny’s stint with Fizzy was done, she was asked to foster a guide dog whose match with a handler hadn’t worked out. The dog was returned to the kennel at GDB’s Oregon campus but was more comfortable in a home setting. Jenny fostered her for two weeks over the holidays, giving her time to adjust before returning to campus for retraining. “She’s about two years old and fully trained as a working guide dog,” says Jenny, “a whole other level of cool!”
Career Change Dogs
When a GDB dog is found to be not well-suited as a working guide dog, GDB tries to match the dog with one of their partner organizations, including Dogs for Better Lives, Dogs for Diabetics and Paws Assisting Veterans. GDB also has an internal program for career-changed dogs; known as K-9 Buddy, the program partners dogs with visually impaired children and teenagers not yet ready for the responsibility of caring for a dog themselves.
If none of these programs are a good fit, the dog’s puppy raiser is given the option to adopt; if they choose not to, GDB has an adoption program that places the dogs in loving families looking for potential therapy dogs or amazing pets. GDB receives more than 2,000 applications for the roughly 170 dogs who are career changed each year. If for any reason an owner or client can no longer care for a GDB dog, the organization takes the dog back and finds another home. Ultimately, each GDB dog is guaranteed a good home for a lifetime.
The Rewards of Saying Goodbye
“Even though I knew Kona was with me temporarily, after she was career-changed, I thought maybe she might be my next dog,” says Jenny. “But Kona took a different path. With Fizzy, I thought, You’re not my next dog, so I was able to keep her at an emotional arm’s length in the beginning. But over time, you grow to love them. Saying goodbye to her, turning her over to GDB for training, was really tough.”
GDB knows how difficult this transition is for puppy raisers, and they try to make it easier with a Recall Reception event. Jenny met her co-raisers at the facility and together, they checked Fizzy in, settled her in her kennel and talked to the employees who would care for her.
“It was hard to leave,” Jenny remembers. “Walking away, I felt like we were abandoning her. It’s crazy to feel that way. It’s not my decision, it’s what I signed up for.” The facility provides puppy raisers with weekly updates through all eight phases of their dog’s training.
“I originally thought I would only raise one puppy,” Jenny says. “Then I’d get my own dog again; I want to do therapy-dog programs. But it’s such a positive experience …working with my puppy starter, co-raiser, club … it’s all great. Fizzy’s starter family and co-raisers were ready to start again with a new puppy, but I was reluctant. Then I learned that repeat raisers time things so they immediately get the next puppy after saying goodbye to the last one, making the transition easier.” Not long after, the same team—Jenny, the puppy-starter family and the co-raiser family— welcomed Fan into their lives.
Jenny got to witness the reunion of a retired guide dog, age 10 or 11, and the dog’s puppy raiser. “After a moment, a light went on and the dog became ecstatic,” says Jenny. “The raiser was crying—we were all crying, but happy tears.”
In general, puppy raisers are given an opportunity to meet the client matched with the dog they helped raise at a ceremony marking the pair’s graduation from their training program. “GDB will give the client your contact info,” says Jenny. “The client gets to decide whether to stay in touch or not, so you might never hear.” Dogs can be placed anywhere in the U.S. or Canada, which makes the chance that puppy raisers will randomly see the puppies they raised very slim.
As Jenny continues co-raising Fan, she’s realistic about what lies ahead. “I’m not an overly emotional person. Well, except for dogs,” Jenny says, laughing. “I thought I would remain rational, that raising a puppy would be my ‘gap year’ after losing Patience and before getting another dog. I thought I could keep a distance, and did initially, but when they sleep on the floor next to your bed, when they’re with you 24/7 every other week, it evolved until I knew, Uh-oh, I can’t keep her at arm’s length.
“I keep telling myself—assuming Fizzy makes it and becomes a guide dog—that this temporary time of sadness and loss is so worth her changing someone’s life. We live in a tough, often negative world, and this is something positive, a gift to a complete stranger. It’s rewarding, but the end goal has nothing to do with me; it benefits someone I’ve never met. How many times in life do you get a chance to give a gift like that? The reward is in making a positive change in a life. Even if Fizzy doesn’t become a guide dog, she’s already changed my life. Now, I hope, she’ll change someone else’s.”
Want to be a puppy raiser? Watch The Pick of the Litter, a 2018 documentary that follows five puppies through the 18-month process of raising, formal training and graduation, and visit Guide Dogs for the Blind at guidedogs.com.