Thank-You Thursday: Puppy Raisers

I have always loved the song, “Wind Beneath My Wings.” Both the Gary Morris original and the Bet Midler cover have essentially the same lyrics. They are a big thank-you for that friend, spouse, or just anyone who’s been there and helped through the good and bad times. When my wife, Amy, and I got married, I used that song as that to which my mom and I danced at the reception. Why? Well, she had so much to do with my success going through mainstream public school, encouraged me through the stresses of college, and so much more. “Wind Beneath My Wings” is one of her favorite songs.

Well, on this first Thankful Thursday, we begin our weekly highlight of a type of person who’s been often behind the scenes and yet key in making the livelihood of someone who’s blind or visually impaired successful. We can think of many such people-teachers of the visually impaired, certified vision rehabilitation counselors, mobility instructors, outreach center directors, and the list can go on.

This week, we say thank-you to puppy raisers. Most of us who’ve had guide dogs met the boy, girl, parents, or whole families who nurtured our  four-legged friends from the time they were two months old for the next year or so. Depending on the school or even the State in which a puppy raiser lives, they’ve had to learn the basics of a guide dog’s purpose, a bit about what’s like to be blind, and how to care for and train a dog to act in any number of settings.

Pups in training have the same rights as fully graduated guide dogs. Raisers can take them pretty much anywhere in public from shopping malls, restaurants, supermarkets, and gyms. That’s why these pups where a specific jacket with the school’s colors and logo emblazoned on the chest.

You can be pretty much any age and raise a pup. Kids as young as nine do it  on their citizen track in 4-H or Future Farmers of America. It’s always so neat meeting whoever’s raised our guides. When I graduated from Leader Dogs (Rochester Hills, MI), Edgar’s raisers were a relatively young couple both of whom worked. My second guide, Lali, came from Guide Dogs of America (GDA), and was raised by a kindergarten teacher from nearby Chino Hills.) The exposure Lali had to her classroom was great preparation for the hubbub he’d experience when guiding me around my office in Philadelphia a year and a half later.

Of course, puppy breath is so quickly addictive! Many raisers think they’ll start with one dog but can’t give it up after that. They’re back in their school’s volunteer office before they know it requesting another pup to raise. I’ve known some who’ve been at it for ten, fifteen, or even twenty years nurturing our furry guides-to-be.

They don’t work alone. Schools like Guide Dogs of America in Sylmar, CA require raisers’ participation in area obedience classes, say with a local Pet Smart or YMCA, as well as joining other raisers for monthly get-togethers. Sometimes, trainers from the school will visit and speak on the pups’ future work. They’ll show the harness which will be the graduated dog’s business suit when leading his person around. They’ll talk vet appointments and encourage raisers to bring their pups into all kinds of places like movie theaters to ballgames and church services. We handlers can tell pretty quickly if our guides were exposed to food courts in shopping malls. The more they were, less prone they’ll be to play centerfielder when that flying fry drops from a table near us.

Lali’s raiser wouldn’t return her dogs to canine college, a.k.a. formal training) until they passed her fried chicken test. That is when she’d leave a sumptuous bag of chicken in the back seat of her car when running errands and have her pup sit in the front. If he kept nose, paws, and tongue off that chicken, they passed. It was great preparation for that part of training when the instructors teach our future guides to resist food distractions. Even when matched with Lali at GDA, he and I went on an obstacle course where one trainer dangled a Twinki, some feet later another threw puppy snacks in our path, then another dangled a big old hot dog in front of his nose.

Guide dogs, after all, must behave in harness. A big part of that is keeping a visibly low profile around food.

So, what do puppy raisers teach beyond the basic house rules? At least with GDA, raisers refrain from issuing commands specific to guiding like “forward,” “right,” “left,” or “follow.” They’ll teach commands like sit, chill, down, heel, and come. The more each raiser works on these with his or her pup, the more that pup gets comfortable following directions in public at obedience meetings or when walking around a park.

And you’ve got to love how much folks get attached to the pups they have for such a short time! I remember coming back to GDA’s open house a couple years after getting Lali. On either side of me during the puppy obstacle race sat raisers I’d previously met on an email list. They treated their girls like they were their own daughters. Both had nurtured two or three pups before, so they knew the question that most people ask when meeting them:

How can you give back your pup for training? Many raisers I’ve known give the empathetic, “It’s hard to do,” response, before explaining that they care for that little lab or golden retriever for a greater purpose, seeing him bring independence and friendship to someone who can’t see. So even with veteran raisers, pups are so much more than replacement parts to “bring back that loving feeling” of needing a snuggly little pooch. Raising pups for the purpose of being guide dogs becomes the unbroken thread in the beautiful tapestry each raiser quilts.

So we say, “Thank-you” to puppy raisers for their zeal in nurturing, joy in caring, and eagerness for seeing us follow our guides on the journey of being boldly blind.

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