Special bonds: Guide Dog Handlers and Their Puppy Raisers

September 13, 2019 | 8 Comments

by Kathy Austin, CVA

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Weller, with his siblings, looks up to greet his new puppy raiser

 

Puppy Raisers

A lot of love, hard work and dedication go into the first year of life for a guide dog puppy. Who does this kind of work? Families of all sizes, single men and women, kids in 4H and FFA, grandparents and college students, just to name a few. They have all done an incredible thing. They take care of a puppy for about a year, teach him basic good manners, expose him to all sorts of environments, keep him healthy and go to puppy meetings to learn how to manage problems. After all this devotion and care, they send their pups back to the guide dog school so they can become full-fledged guides for someone with vision loss.

As you might imagine, these puppy raisers become quite attached to their wards. It is an emotional roller coaster. Loving their pups, being proud to see them tick off all the boxes they need to accomplish, then experiencing the sadness of giving them up. The incredible emotions were apparent to me at my first graduation ceremony at Guide Dogs for the Blind.

 

Feeling the Impact

Graduation day at Guide Dogs for the Blind is a big event. Puppy raisers, donors, staff and volunteers all attend the graduation ceremony. Some raisers and their families are also coming to pick up their brand new puppies while others are dropping off their trained puppies for formal training. Raisers whose formally trained puppy is graduating are meeting the person with vision loss who they will turn their dog over to at the ceremony. Each raiser and new handler address the audience to talk about their puppy and the pride they have in their accomplishment.

One young lady, only 12 years old, stood to talk to the audience about her experience raising her puppy. She could not hold back her tears as she spoke. You could feel the emotion as she handed her pride and joy over to his new handler. This experience made me realize, right from the start, how hard it is to do this work.

 

When Everyone Goes Home

While you might think that after the guide dog and new handler complete their training and go home, that’s the end of contact with the puppy raiser. Many guide dog schools offer their graduates an opportunity to continue the relationship with their puppy raisers. As with most relationships, some become very important and some go by the wayside. However, in my informal survey of guide dog handlers, the overwhelming majority have had extraordinarily good relationships with their puppy raisers. Most have developed strong bonds and have a special connection with each other. I wanted to share some of these heartfelt stories from guide dog handlers about their special relationships with these dedicated people. I think you’ll agree, the love and pride truly shine through.

 

Anonymous and Guide Juno

One set of my raisers were an older couple who were a ton of fun to spend time with. My guide and I even spent a weekend with them on their farm in central California. While I was working in San Francisco, my raisers secretly showed up and videotaped my guide and me walking to the bus from my office. They were so proud that the pup they raised made it as a guide!

Almost every one of my puppy raisers presented me with some photos of my guide as a pup. Because I can see a tiny bit, those photos are some of my most treasured possessions.

 

Penny and Kilo

Kilo’s raiser was a ski instructor so Kilo got a season pass to the ski resort where she taught. Kilo would sometimes pull the smallest kids up the small bunny hill. Kilo’s raiser had raised seven other puppies and all but one became working guides. Kilo’s raiser always wanted to know about how we were doing, so I would send pictures and stories about our adventures.

 

Pam and Cabrillo

Pam, with microphone in hand and Cabrillo at her feet, talks to her puppy raisers at graduation from Guide Dogs for the Blind.

Pam, with Cabrillo at her feet, shares her experience during training with Cabrillo’s puppy raisers.

Cabrillo’s raisers were a mom and her daughter, Janice and Tarin. They presented me with a scrapbook of Cabrillo’s time with them. These included photos of Cabrillo dressed as a skunk for his first Halloween and photos of him camping with them. Though I can’t see the photos, I delight and take pride as others look at them.

When Cabrillo got sick and eventually passed away, Janice, Tarin and their spouses were there for me in a big way. Janice’s husband made a beautiful urn for me to keep his ashes in. In turn, I shared some of his ashes with them. They are truly special people, wise and loving beyond anything I could imagine

 

Dan and Teton

I receive cards from my present puppy raiser for Father’s Day, Christmas, my birthday and any other holiday she wants to send a card. We talk several times on the phone and the conversations always end up several hours long.

I am still in contact with my first puppy raiser even though this guide passed away in 2012. If I needed a home for my current guide, I have a feeling she would be here in an instant. I would not trade the bond that I have developed with my raisers for anything.

 

Vicki and Latrice

I have a wonderful puppy raiser. In fact, we have a lot in common.  We were both married on the exact same day, year and hour. We met in person and it was wonderful. She sends us presents and I try to send things her way. I so respect those who are raising our fantastic dogs.

 

Alberto and G

G’s puppy raiser is a teenager in California and G was her first puppy. We communicate via email and Facebook. We talk about the new puppy she is raising and life in general. I try to share with her things about G that highlight the product of her work as a puppy raiser. I feel that through this communication I can show my gratitude for her time, dedication, love and affection. Hopefully, this will encourage her to continue doing this selfless duty of love. I also think it is important to let people know that young people are capable of being generous and responsible. My guide is a product of hours of training, affection and love given by this young woman.

 

Kathy and Jethro, Solomon, Weller and Rowen

Weller, a beautiful black lab puppy, looks up at the camera

Weller as a puppy

As for me, my first raiser Sharon and I have a true friendship lasting 17 years. Jethro was the only dog she raised and now she volunteers at a stable caring for a horse rescued from the slaughterhouse.

Judi and Ron raised Solomon, who they tell me was born to be a guide dog.  They raised many pups with most of them becoming working guides. They were right about Solomon.

Mother and daughter, Renee and Shelly, along with Aparna and her boys, raised our dear Weller. He is so gentle with children, a good thing now since my first grandbaby has arrived.

Adding to my circle of puppy raisers are Sue and Lucinda. They taught Rowen proper office behavior – he always goes under the desk, no matter whose desk it is! These people are all dear to me and have a special place in my heart.

Thank you to all the raisers who devote their love, time and effort into making these beautiful pups into such an important part of our lives.

Celebrate National Guide Dog month during September! Watch this video and see the impact raising a guide dog puppy has on these FFA students. And, for full insight into the process of raising a guide dog puppy, check out the documentary, Pick of the Litter.

 

Kathy is the Community Engagement Specialist at Second Sense.  She is currently working with her fourth guide dog.

8 comments on “Special bonds: Guide Dog Handlers and Their Puppy Raisers”

  1. Lucinda Norman says:

    What a beautiful and informative article! Most people don’t realize how much work goes into raising one of these amazing Guide dogs! We as raisers get so attached and work very hard to make sure our puppy “makes it.” I’ve never met the writer of the article- Kathy personally but it means so much to know something that I participated in helps her every day . Rowan was my first to “make it” and although I miss him and think about him, I know he is doing what he was born to do – GUIDE! Kathy knows how proud we are of Rowen and keeps us updated and sends pictures ! Please share this article with anyone who love dogs and loves to be a part of changing someone’s life,,

  2. Sharon McGuire says:

    Hello Kathy. Jethro was our funny dog, my one and only puppy and your very first guide. Your narratives exemplify the core of the experience. What appears to be an intimate triangle of one puppy raiser, one puppy and one guide dog handler explodes into a beautiful fractal. Indeed, the triangle is not solitary but repeats and repeats and repeats itself, spanning distance and moving through time. The intricate community its ever-changing pattern represents is truly a marvel. Thank you for sharing a few of the stories that make this fractal nature so clear.

  3. Kathy says:

    Lucinda, I don’t think many people realize the effort, time and love that goes into this work. The attachment you all must feel is overwhelming. Thank you for all you do! To be able to live the life I do is because of people like you who make it happen. I am truly grateful!

  4. Kathy says:

    Dear Sharon, Yes, Jethro was our silly dog, but as Bryan always tells me, he was smarter than me, probably due to you getting him started on the right path. Your thoughts on the impact of puppy raising on us all, as always, is quite eloquent — it truly is an amazing thing all of you do. Thank you!!! Hope Dakota is doing well!

  5. Renee Novo says:

    What heartwarming, fun, personal stories. We were thrilled when we found out Weller would be a guide, our previous pup became a breeder. When Shelly asked if we could drive up to Oregon for graduation, my answer was a resounding “yes!” It was lovely meeting Kathy and what fond memories we have. We are truly thankful that she keeps us up-to-date on all her pups and their antics. As Kathy says, Weller is wonderful with babies and kids. He probably could have babysat my grandkids! just kidding.

  6. Kathy says:

    Hi Renee, Yes, our dear Weller has the most gentle, sweet soul. He’s getting a bit gray in the muzzle now with another birthday approaching in November, but still an absolutely beautiful dog. The photos here are ones from the photo album you gave me at graduation. I was so happy you and Shelly could be in Oregon with me on graduation day. Please say hi to Shelly for me and hope your family is all well!

  7. Shelly says:

    Such a sweet article. I have such nice memories of the graduation and the time my mom and I spent with Kathy. I am grateful to still hear about her family, Weller, and the new and old guides.

  8. Kathy Austin says:

    Hi Shelly! so good to hear from you. Hope school is going well! Glad you enjoyed the blog. Weller is doing great — he still the sweetest. He also keeps Rowen in line. Even at almost 7, he’s faster and more agile than Rowen. Rowen is always on the losing end of a play session. Rowen consistently ends up with mud on his head, or back or legs, but Rowen is the instigator, so I don’t blame Weller at all! Weller is always giving my husband a friendly reminder that it’s time to go to bed. he stands and stares at Bryan until Bryan acquiesces — such a good dog, you and your mom did a great job! Take Care!

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