Chris Keilman just sent away a dog he has raised and loved for the past year. He wasn't being cold-hearted when he gave her away. Actually, it was a very special act of kindness. Chris is a puppy raiser. He raised the puppy, Winter, to be a seeing-eye dog. And now it is time for Winter to go to school.
Dogs now work in many ways as special companions to people in need. They help the sight- or hearing-impaired. They also assist people in wheelchairs or those who have other physical disabilities. But before they receive their formal training, they need to do a little growing up. They need special care and guidance during that first year before they are taught the skills they will use as service dogs. This is what puppy raisers do.
"We teach them basic obedience," says Sarah Read, who has raised 11 puppies to be guide dogs, starting when she was 9. "They learn simple commands like 'sit,' 'stay,' 'down,' 'come,' and 'heel.' " They also have to get used to many different places, since they will eventually go with their human companions to work, restaurants, and bus stations, or into very noisy or confusing places.
"I often took my puppies to school with me," says Sarah. Guide dogs must learn to sit quietly for long periods of time while their companions are at work or school. Now that Sarah is out of school, she takes her puppy to work. She also takes him into restaurants, elevators, and strange buildings. "The construction sites in town are very helpful," she says. "They help the puppy get used to loud noises, torn-up sidewalks, and barricades."
Chris just took his new puppy, Raven, into a very crowded store. "She did pretty well," he reports. He must teach her not go running off or to touch food that hasn't been given to her. She has to learn not to be distracted by people, noise, or food when she is working.
Linda Keilman, Chris's mom, is now co-leader of a 4-H group that trains and assists puppy raisers. They hold weekly meetings for the puppies and raisers. They check on progress, talk about their dogs, and learn new training exercises. Each person with a puppy also has to fill out a monthly report, telling where they have taken the dog, what exercises they have done, and what they plan to do in the future.
And puppy raisers don't train just the dogs, they also teach the public. "People need to know that a guide dog can't just jump up and play with them," Sarah says. Chris reports that kids enjoy seeing the dog when he takes her to school or church. But they need to know that she isn't there to play.
Service dogs do get lots of time to play, but they have to learn that play is separate from work. Chris spends time wrestling with Raven and letting her run as well as teaching her obedience.
After spending a year loving and caring for an intelligent and devoted puppy, it can be hard to say goodbye. "It is really hard to part with them," says Sarah. "But after talking to blind people who now have the dogs, it's a lot easier. When I hear about a woman who is able to go to the store for the first time in her life, or the man who can now take a walk around his neighborhood because he has a dog to guide him, I feel really good about what I've done."
Chris agrees. Although it was hard to say good-bye to Winter, he knows it was for a good cause. And now he has Raven to work with. Chris, who is now 13, also plans to become even more involved in a few years. "When you're 16, you can work at the guide dog center with the new puppies or training the guide dogs," he explains.
For Sarah, her love of dogs and her experience as a puppy raiser guided her into her present career. She's a dog groomer, and is still a puppy raiser. "It's great, even when you have to let them go," she says. "You get to spend a year with a really wonderful puppy, and when he's gone, you get another one. It's a lot of work, but also a lot of fun."
ONE more benefit for puppy raisers is the possibility of getting the dog back when it retires from service or if it doesn't successfully become a service dog. The companion the dog has served gets first choice to keep a retiring dog. If they choose not to keep it, the person who raised the puppy can bring the dog back to stay with them.
Sarah is ready to take back any of the dogs she raised as puppies. She has stayed in contact with their new owners and enjoys hearing about how well they are doing. In the meantime, she and Chris and many others will keep loving and training their puppies and then giving them away.