Four years ago a friend peaked our family's interest in becoming a 'puppy raiser' for the Leader Dog School for the Blind. My family (husband and two children) and I filled out an application, which was approved, and we were put on a waiting list. We have two German Shepherds of our own, and love the breed, so we had marked 'German Shepherd' as our preference on the application. Other breeds which are trained include Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers. After 6 months, we received word that the School had a puppy for us. We drove the 10 hours to Rochester, MI to pick him up.
We brought our 8-week-old puppy home, named him Remington, and started life together. Our two German Shepherds, Prince and Mindy, were not exactly thrilled with a new puppy in the house, but soon accepted him. Tigger, our cat, eyed him from a distance! The manual we brought home with us discussed what should be included in Remington's training. Naturally, housebreaking was at the top of the list. Along with that, one of our first duties was to socialize him well, helping him to be comfortable with people of all ages, and with other animals.
We also were instructed to teach Remington the various obedience commands such as 'sit,' 'down,' 'stay,' and 'heel.' We were not responsible for teaching him any of the special commands he would be using once he became a Leader Dog. That instruction would wait until he was a year of age and take place at the School with special instructors. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to teach him any tricks. (We think he would have been great at them.)
Finally, we needed to acquaint Remington with as many different situations, sounds, smells, and sights as possible. He basically went everywhere with us. He had a vest to wear, which said, 'Future Leader Dog' and was allowed in almost every public facility we entered including stores, restaurants, gas stations, the Post Office, library, and schools. We encouraged people to come up and greet him. (Once a dog becomes a Leader Dog and is wearing a harness, he should not be greeted or petted before asking permission from the owner.) We took him near construction sites and busy highways so he could become acquainted with loud noises and heavy traffic. He went through the car wash with us (in the car!), accompanied us to the county fair, and sometimes to work. He went up and down in elevators and various types of stairs. We had him walk on all types of surfaces including slippery floors, sidewalks, and paths in the parks. He became used to the sound of vacuum cleaners, fans, hairblowers, lawnmowers, and of course in the Northwoods, snowblowers!
As a 'puppy raiser,' we take full financial responsibility for the care of the puppy including food, licenses, and veterinary care. Every two months we gave the School an update on how Remington was doing: his weight, how much he was eating, what skills he had mastered, and if he had any medical problems or was on any medication. They answered any questions we had involving Remington's care and instruction.
After a year, it was time to take Remington back to the School where he could be evaluated. They gave him a thorough veterinary check-up and tested his personality and temperament. At this point, the School determined whether Remington would make a good Leader Dog, should be used for breeding, or come back home with us if he needed more time to mature. If at any time during his training or at this check-up the School felt he would not fit well into their program, we would have been able to adopt him. If we elected not to adopt him, the School would have found him a good home, or he may have been enrolled in a different service dog program (e.g.; hearing dogs for the deaf) or perhaps a police dog academy. Only about 30% of all puppies who are raised through the School's program actually become Leader Dogs.
Remington was approved to continue with his Leader Dog training. Although we were very happy for him, we knew it was now time to say good-bye, and as you can imagine, it was very sad. Tears flowed, final pets and hugs were given, and we made the rather lonely 10-hour drive back home.
Remington completed his 4-month Leader Dog training. He was matched with a blind person from Michigan and as a team, they trained together for a solid and intense 25 days. They graduated with flying colors and they now live in Michigan.
We enjoyed the experience with Remington so much, we decided to do it again. This time we decided we'd like to try a Labrador Retriever, and in 9 months returned to pick up our new puppy whom we named Nugget. Nugget was a barrel of energy and a bit different from the German Shepherds we were so used to. But we had so much fun together and again, in a year we brought her back to the School. She too, was trained as a Leader Dog and now lives in Spain with her new owner!
I guess being a 'puppy raiser' gets in your blood, for now we have our third puppy, Shadow. He is a 5-month-old German Shepherd. Recently, we took him into Walmart and he started to chase his tail round and round, and he drew quite a crowd. Needless to say it was kind of embarrassing. But you see, Leader Dog Puppies are no different than other puppies, and evidently Shadow will need to mature a bit before he becomes a Leader Dog!
We are always asked, 'Isn't it hard to give a puppy up after having him with you every day for a year?' It certainly is. After we return from taking a puppy back to the School, we sometimes think it's just too hard and maybe we shouldn't put ourselves through the sadness another time. But you know, after several weeks, that urge strikes again and we decide the daily joy and fulfillment we receive in raising the puppy far outweigh the sadness we feel when we have to give him up. Then we contact the School and say, 'We'd love to do it again!'