They say it takes a village to raise a child, and the same can be said for a guide dog. It’s amazing to realize that 368 people have a hand in the development of each Southeastern Guide Dog. But one crucial person has the most influence — the Puppy Raiser.
Puppy Raisers are volunteers who take a cuddly 9- to 10-week-old puppy into their homes and hearts; love it, train it, care for it, expose it to the world around them. Then, after 12-16 months, they return it to Southeastern just when it is getting to be a well-behaved young dog. Sound interesting? Well, there’s more ... they also attend twice-a-month meetings/exposures/obedience sessions, follow the 100-plus-page puppy training manual and act as an educator/ambassador for Southeastern to the general public who invariably have numerous questions about their pup.
Puppy Raisers are a special breed: they are compassionate, persistent, patient, social, nurturing, patient, altruistic, generous and did I mention, patient? They follow the strict guidelines set by the school as to all aspects of how the puppy is to be trained, from the basic obedience commands, all the way down to the way they relieve themselves (or as referred to in the Southeastern world — “go busy”). Yes, guide dogs are taught to “busy” not only on command, but in a special way that makes it easier for the visually impaired person to clean up after them.
Many Puppy Raisers have learned that their once short jaunts to the store for just a couple items can easily turn into an hour-long process with all the things involved in getting the puppy ready for an outing, taking time to make sure the puppy is being obedient and happily answering questions or listening to stories about guide dog puppies from the interested people they run into.
You may wonder why, with 13 certified guide dog trainers on staff, does Southeastern need to send puppies to Puppy Raiser homes? Well, confidence is one of the most important traits in a guide dog, and dogs get more confident the more they experience things. Southeastern’s trainers rely on the Puppy Raisers to make sure the dogs have already experienced just about anything they might come across when guiding their handler. The Puppy Raisers take their charges with them everywhere — work, school, movies, restaurants, grocery stores, planes, trains (and automobiles), malls, beauty salons, barber shops, horse ranches, doctor’s offices, etc., etc., etc. If there wasn’t an army of Puppy Raisers to socialize the puppies, there would be far fewer people benefiting from a Southeastern Guide Dog, that’s for sure.
Once the Puppy Raisers have attended all the meetings, socialized the pup all over town (and beyond), loved and trained a super-obedient dog, then comes the hard part — it’s time for the pup to head back to Southeastern Guide Dogs for formal harness training. Much like sending a child off to college, the Puppy Raisers deal with all the emotions of letting go of something they love dearly, along with being beyond proud of the accomplishment they have achieved. Despite knowing from the very beginning that the dog was only theirs for a time, it is still a difficult time for the Puppy Raiser.
Southeastern is trying to make that time a bit easier on the Puppy Raiser, along with letting them see just why they put so much time and effort into sculpting this wonderful dog. The first official freshman orientation of “Guide Dog U” will happen this Saturday on Southeastern’s campus. Close to 25 dogs will all be coming in together to start their harness training that day, and there are lots of activities planned for the Puppy Raisers. There will be a Puppy Hugging session (essential after handing over their dog), a guided tour of the campus, a chance to hear just what an impact a guide has had on a graduate’s life, a special presentation by Southeastern’s CEO, the opportunity to experience a blindfold walk with a trained guide, a glimpse into the training their dogs will experience and a speaker to present other career opportunities should their dogs decide guiding is not for them.
While bringing a dog back to campus for training might be difficult, it turns out most Puppy Raisers find that picking up another puppy is the best way to fill that void, so then the process starts all over again.
And all Puppy Raisers look forward to being invited back to campus for Puppy Raiser Day. That’s the time when they get to see their puppy, now a full-fledged guide dog, guiding their new handler. It’s an amazing sight to see and one that puts into perspective all the hard work the Puppy Raisers have done.
If you are interested in joining the legions of amazing volunteer Puppy Raisers for Southeastern Guide Dogs, please visit http://www.guidedogs.org/index.php?page=puppy-raising and complete an application — there’s a cuddly puppy just waiting for you!