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Breed All About It

With Westminster Kennel Club crowning a new king, we thought it time to tackle a question we are often asked: "Why don’t you get dogs from shelters to use as guide dogs?"

This week saw a cute little Affenpinscher named Banana Joe take the title as top dog at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show.  It also saw Natalie Morales of NBC’s Today Show air a new PSA encouraging people to adopt a dog. 

There are people who are passionate about breeding dogs and others who are even more passionate about rescuing dogs from shelters.  A question we are asked quite often is why do we breed dogs instead of getting them from shelters, so here’s why.

We have been breeding dogs for the past 30 years and have developed a method to get the traits that make for successful guide dogs. These traits include excellent health, trainability, hardiness, and intelligence. That’s not to say you couldn’t find dogs with those traits in a shelter, but by having detailed records going back generations, we have the reasonable assumption that our dogs will excel in those categories.

Our dogs have the incredible responsibility of keeping someone safe.  That is a lot to expect of a dog and requires a LOT of training.  Our dogs begin training right from birth with staff members that handle the pups as soon as they are born and when the pups hit the ripe old age of two weeks, volunteers begin training them in Early Puppy Socialization sessions.

Puppies are introduced to the collar and leash, walked over a variety of surfaces, hear loud noises while in the comforting cocoon of their mother and sibling’s care, and even start potty training.

At six weeks of age, the puppies move over to the Puppy Hugging area and are introduced to some of the +20,000 visitors we have on campus each year.  Here they are exposed to many different sights, smells, sounds, and movements. All designed to stimulate the puppy’s brain and encourage learning.

When the pups are 9 to 10 weeks old, they go out to their puppy raiser homes and the real work of exposing them to every aspect of life begins. Puppy raisers follow a very detailed manual of training basic obedience along with proper exposures for the appropriate age of the puppy.

After the puppy raiser has taken their charge literally everywhere so they become confident dogs, it’s time for the dogs to come back to campus to begin formal harness training.

Their next six months are spent being assessed, trained, and polished until they are ready to be someone’s eyes. When the dogs are approximately two years old, they are matched with a visually impaired handler to begin their working life.

So, you can see, by the time the dogs are two years old, they have followed a strict plan of training, have been exposed to many different experiences in controlled environments that are appropriate for their stage of training, are beyond obedient, and have shown themselves to be highly confident and exceptional dogs in excellent health.

We are very careful about the exposures the pups have when they are very young to be sure there is nothing that is going to be too scary for them that may pop up to deter them later in life. 

We would have no idea what a pup from a shelter had experienced before it came to us. What if they had a really bad experience from a dump truck, and later, when they were guiding someone, shied away because they came across another dump truck – that could be a fatal mistake. We have to keep the safety of our graduates in mind at all times.

Since we use large breed dogs (Labs, golden retrievers, and goldadors), their typical life span is 10-12 years.  We want to be sure that we are providing our graduates with the most healthy dogs available so they can have a long working life with their handler. If a dog was pulled from a shelter as an adult (aside from the 2+ years of training involved), that dog would have a far shorter working life which would greatly effect the handler.

Another point to consider is that we have to have a constant stream of dogs in the training program to meet the needs of our new students and returning graduates.  Our focus has to be on the needs of those we serve, so if we couldn’t find just the right dogs in shelters, we would be leaving our graduates without the mobility a guide dog provides.

So the next time you are thinking about adding a new four-legged family member, we suggest checking to see if that perfect companion is waiting for you at the shelter, just as many of us do and have done in our personal lives.

Gwendolyn Usina March 02, 2013 at 03:27 AM
Would like to know how much does it cost to fully trained one dog? I' ve helped other no-kill animal shelter and a the humand society here..Frankly, I like the No-Kill...But this is really hard times right now..We are not getting the funds that people used to send..I'm doing this all by myself, but can't keep doing this for too many months..when nothing is being down, no adoptions and no fosters, no volunteers..One day soon, since no one will listen to me,one day is going to be a sad day!!
Jan Small March 15, 2013 at 02:43 PM
Terrific article, Jennifer! I love learning about Southeastern Guide Dogs through your writings.

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