Guide Dogs for the Blind, GDB, is an organization that seeks to provide “exceptional partnerships between people, dogs, and communities”. It is an organization that prides itself on the ability to empower the impaired, helping them move forward and gain independence within their lives. GDB is highly committed to the success and welfare of both the dog and their partner as well as aspire to support and educate. They produce Labrador and Golden Retrievers, breeding all of their own dogs. There is the hope that all the dogs will become guides for the impaired but this is not always the case. GDB make sure that each and every one of their dogs is cared for and placed in the appropriate home. Whether the dog makes it all the way to being a guide or has a career change and becomes another kind of service or therapy dog, or a loving pet they are always in good hands. “Guide Dogs for the Blind envisions a world with greater inclusion, opportunity, and independence by optimizing the unique capabilities of people and dogs” and it all begins with a puppy.
There is a saying “it takes a village to raise a child”. Well, the same can be said for a guide dog. It takes an integrated community to raise a guide dog to its full potential. Puppy raisers are the unsung heroes of the service dog world. It is the kind of job that goes quietly unnoticed, as it is the finished product of a guide that always gets the most hype. It could be said that anyone who loves dogs, wants to give back, and learn a thing or two would be a successful puppy raiser. But there is a lot more to it, which is what the puppy raisers of Paws For Independence showed me. Being a puppy raiser takes a significant amount of dedication and consistency, accompanied by both caring and detachment. They raise their puppy with precision and care, all with the clear goal in mind that this puppy must return to the GDB campus to someday enrich and better someone else’s life. Each puppy raiser knows that their puppy’s departure will be a sad one but that grief is wiped away and forgotten as they watch their dog graduate with their new partner at the end of their long journey through training. It takes a special dog to be a guide but it also takes a special person to raise it!
The puppy raising process can last a little over a year in most situations, with the puppy raiser receiving their pup at around eight or nine weeks of age. The puppy then returns to GDB between thirteen and fifteen months of age to progress into an eight stage training process. At any stage of the program, a puppy may be found not suited for the work. Puppy raisers hold the paramount responsibility of laying the groundwork for the rigorous training the dogs must go through in order to become guides once they return to the GDB base in San Rafael, CA. Housetraining, crate training, socializing, and obedience are broad terms for what the puppies will learn that barely scratches the surface of the skills they must master before heading back to California.
Sitting in on our local GDB club, Paws for Independence, I had the wonderful opportunity to observe the group of puppy raisers handle not only their puppies but also other puppies while working through problems, exercises, and group activities. This illustrated the strong foundation and confidence the dogs and their handlers were building, which would help them along their journey. The puppies are trained to be very attentive and taught through positive association and well-timed praise. Learning is made fun and positive for the puppies, reinforcing their way of learning by association. During one meeting Shep and Rogue were being taught commands like “go to bed” and both demonstrated an incredible ability to learn and a great willingness to please. Many, if not all, of the handlers will attest that each dog is different, unique, and learns at its own pace and in its own way. This was clearly observed as the more experienced puppies displayed their exuberance to complete the “go to bed” command for their handlers. No dog performed the command in exactly the same way yet they still enthusiastically found their way to the dog bed and laid down as instructed. Each puppy had an incredible attentive nature and was always looking to please, from the more seasoned puppies to those fresh off the puppy truck.
GDB puppy trucks serve a dual purpose; they bring young puppies to be trained while taking trained puppies back to GDB campus. We had the opportunity to observe the arrival of one of GDB puppy trucks and witnessed both the intoxicating excitement people experience when receiving a new puppy as well as the residing grief others experienced as they sent their puppies back to campus. It was an interesting juxtaposition of emotion wrapped up in one event.
One of my biggest questions for the puppy raisers was how do you handle giving up the dog you have spent over a year raising and training? The answer was clear and simple, all of the puppies belong to GDB and are merely placed in the care of the puppy raisers towards a greater goal. Knowing that their puppy has a very important role to fill helps the looming separation of raiser and puppy.
When I asked the handlers how they felt about parting from their GDB puppy many of them smiled and confessed that it is an incredibly heart wrenching experience. However, seeing their dog graduate, continue on to be a guide, and knowing what the dog means to the individual they are paired with is heartwarming and fulfilling, erasing all the grief of the puppy initially leaving. If the puppy they have raised does not complete the program, they are always offered back to their raiser first. If they cannot take the puppy back, the puppy is then placed in a well-screened and appropriate home as a pet. Raising a potential guide dog is an incredible way to give back no matter where the dog ends up and brings so many people together in the process.
Something that really compelled me towards this organization and this group of people was how it created an amazing sense of community. Every individual within the local club joined for a different reason, but all of the reasons were commendable. Most of the people within this group have raised more than one puppy as well; some individuals having raised over ten! It was clear that this is a program that kept people coming back for more.
Every individual discovered Guide Dogs for the Blind in a different way, whether it was because they loved Labradors, made a chance encounter in a store or a finish line of a race, as a senior project, or as a means to bridge a language barrier. Each individual I had the great opportunity to talk to told their own compelling story and it reinforced what an incredible program Guide Dogs for the Blind is. It creates a strong sense of community by bringing people together who may have never met if it had not been for the program. Everyone works towards a significant goal that is not based upon themselves, but rather on bettering the life of someone they do not even know. Loren Wagner’s story particularly caught my attention. He encountered a puppy raiser while at Home Depot and asked for their business card. Loren carried that card with him for several years until after retiring he put that card to good use and joined GDB himself! Today he and his wife are raising their seventh puppy, Gretel, a yellow Labrador. He told me, “it’s great to give back but it is also great to be able to meet so many people. The dogs put you in situations where you get the opportunity to connect with people everywhere”. This in fact is how I came to be writing this article!
Before exploring this group of people, the organization, and training program, I really had no idea about the physical and emotion process required to participate. Every puppy raiser I have met joined this program to give back and whether or not their dog makes it all the way to graduation they are constantly giving back. Whether it is from giving a smile to a passerby to the producing the gift of a full-fledged guide. Many puppy raisers go unnoticed and unacknowledged; they are the silent heroes to a noble cause. Thank you all for your service.
To learn more about Guide Dogs for the Blind click here!