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Amelia Islander

Heroes in Training

By Michael Tanner • Photo by Christy LeLait

On any day you might see me and River, a female yellow lab puppy, walking in downtown Fernandina Beach on Centre Street or at the Farmers Market on Saturdays doing our training. My wife and I raise and train puppies to become service dogs.

We are often approached when we are out with the puppy by people interested in our experience as puppy-raisers. We explain that these excursions are critically important for a service puppy’s training because the puppies need to experience all the sights, sounds, odors, and distractions of the outside world on a continual basis. It’s all part of turning a puppy a dependable service dog.

Of course, River has her favorite watering hole spots, knows where all the vendors hide their doggy treats, and has her favorite place to do her business. This is the socialization part of the process, but it has some important limits. The red vest means she is on the job. It’s not playtime, and she must understand that.

As we walk about, we ask people to respect this, knowing full well how hard it is to resist petting a cute lab puppy! The first 18 weeks of a puppy’s life are very crucial in determining that puppy’s suitability as a guide dog. It is a time to show the puppy love, challenge its mind with puzzles, and teach it basic commands, a soft mouth and bite, and reward good behaviors.

It’s not all fun for the puppy raiser, with sleepless nights, the housebreaking messy phase, chewing, shedding, and leash training. If you are interested, be prepared to spend a lot of time with your puppy. Dog parks and service puppy-raising do not mix well. It takes only one bad experience with a more dominant dog to make a lifelong impression on that puppy. An overly submissive or fearful puppy will not become a guide dog.

Puppy-raisers are also responsible for some monthly expenses. Service dog agencies pay for all veterinary expenses, but puppy-raisers pay for food and toys, which can add up to $50 per month. Not all puppy-raisers make it, and some need to return the puppy. Many with very good intentions find out that it conflicts with their priorities and responsibilities. You’ll also experience a little heartache when it’s time to give up the puppy you have loved for many months so that it can finish its training. That’s the number one question my wife and I are asked: “How can you give her up?”

For us, we think of the puppy as our child, whom we raised and is now heading off to college (Guide Dog School), getting a job, and becoming independent. It does gives us some comfort. We tend to assume the puppy feels the same human emotion upon departure. When River looks at my wife and I, we feel the love emanating from her. We have been her “Mom and Dad.”

But the amazing thing about dogs is that they always live in the moment. If treated with love, and well cared for, they will adapt and become that new family’s loving member once again. This is when the puppy raiser gives one last hug and kiss, and whispers in her ear (“We love you, but it’s time to become a guide dog and help someone”) before sneaking off with tears in your eyes. Separation is part of the job requirement. Some agencies will offer the adult dog back to the original puppy raisers after its service life is over. We hope to get River back some day.

So, is it all worth the effort in the end? When you get a notice from the agency that your puppy has graduated and has been place with a person who is legally blind, it will bring tears to your eyes and joy to your heart. River is the fifth guide dog puppy we have helped raise and she will be our last. It was an amazing experience that made us better, more loving, and more compassionate people as a result.