What we puppy raisers can do for the blind people who will come to rely on these dogs is build the dogs' confidence and base of experience: We introduce them to a wide range of situations and activities, we get them used to being groomed and handled, we teach them good manners, we see that they have fun and enjoy their work. (Early on, I heard of one yellow Lab who accompanied his partner, a young professional woman, on a business trip shortly after they graduated. The woman packed the night before but did not close her suitcase until morning; when she went to unpack at the hotel, she found that her guide dog had packed several of his toys during the night.)
At the time of Savoy's IFT (in-for-training, the qualifying exam), she aced all but one category: She was too easily startled for guide work and was chosen instead for the school's brood/stud program; mating with an unflappable male could compensate for Savoy's tendency in the next generation. No longer a puppy raiser, I became a "brood harbor" and got to keep my girl. But because I had fully expected to give her up from the start, I felt I owed more. So Savoy and I volunteered to take in very young puppies for home socialization. We bring several of them home for a week of individual attention that often results in better performance when they are temperament-tested at 7 or 8 weeks, at which time they are either accepted into the program or released for adoption as pets.
At a recent graduation, I drifted among the groups that formed proud and teary reunions around the graduates. It is both humbling and exalting to be a witness as blind men and women meet the volunteers who have raised their new partners. For their part, the noble guides lie on their backs, grinning, getting tummy rubs. Out of harness, a Lab dances with a child. A young couple hands a bag to the blind man who has just graduated with the dog they raised. "We brought two or three toys he really likes to play with." The dog's head disappears into the bag and surfaces with a worn squeaky pacifier.
"He loves to wrestle...."
"She grew up in a house with a big yard...."
"I hope you don't mind, he's starting to shed," says a puppy raiser. "It's part of the package," says the blind partner. "I have two cats that shed, too. Oh, I found out he's left-handed!" "I didn't know that," says the raiser. "I asked him to shake, and he gave me his left paw," says the admiring partner. "I'll bet he's ambidextrous!" says the equally admiring raiser.
John Spencer, a graduate who speaks for his class, describes the training they have all just been through. He talks about the value of this time and says, "It wasn't wasted. It wasn't even spent. It was shared." And one of the staff quotes a Swedish proverb: A shared joy is a double joy.
For information on volunteering, go to the GEB Web site, www.guidingeyes.org, or call 800-942-0149. Recommended reading: Two Puppies, by Jane and Michael Stern, an excellent factual and personal history of this program.
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