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Dog Tales: How can you give up the puppy?

Raising puppies for Leader Dogs for the Blind has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have been privileged to be involved in.

Having the opportunity to do something for someone that I don't know and probably will never meet is incredible. As great as the program is, there are, however, a few downers. One of the most frequently asked questions I hear is, "How do you ever give the puppy up after a year?"

I'd like to pose a different set of questions. Why do hundreds of volunteers across America agree to raise a service dog puppy knowing that 13-16 months later that puppy will have to be returned to the parent organization? Who would agree to go through the peeing and pooping, chewing and jumping, vet trips and expenses of raising a puppy and then not get to enjoy the decade or more of doggie devotion? And why do people do it year after year?

I don't even want to venture a guess at how many organizations, just in America, are training and certifying service dog/handler teams. Nearly everyone is familiar with Seeing Eye, one of the premier dog guide programs for the visually impaired. The term Seeing Eye Dog is often applied generically to dog guides even though the dog came from a different school. The school established itself as a standard for the industry.

Leader Dogs for the Blind, based out of Rochester, Mich., trains dog guides for the visually impaired. They also have a program for folks who are both sight and hearing impair. These dogs learn to "read" basic sign language; a skill that aids in the communication within the dog/handler team.

Hearing and Service Dogs of Minnesota continues to expand their services. Founded primarily to train hearing assistance dogs, the organization added mobility assistance dogs and seizure alert dogs.

Their training expertise is growing as they now are training hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) alert dogs as well as dogs trained to anchor (prevent from dashing off) and calm autistic children. Due to this growth in services the agency recently transitioned to a larger facility in New Hope, Minn., and is changing its name to Cando Canines, to better exemplify the work they perform.

Great Plains Assistance Dogs of Jud, N.D., offers mobility assistance dogs as well as therapeutic companion dogs.

The goal of each of these organizations is to improve the lives of folks who can benefit from the help of a four-legged partner. The dogs are trained; then the dog/handler teams are individually trained to the level that allows them to pass a certification test.

That certification along with the Americans with Disabilities Act allows the team full access to public transportation, public services, businesses, hospitals, churches, or any place the person might need to go.

The certified team is the end result, the goal. The certification process starts with the dog, and the dog starts as a puppy. The various training centers have learned that properly raised puppies dramatically increase the success rates of the training programs and the dog/handler teams.

While some programs rely on donated animals, most have also found that a sound breeding program can produce the size and temperament desired in the dogs they need for training.

Here is where the puppy raisers fit in. Each organization has a set of puppy raising guidelines that, if followed, produce a calm, focused and trainable dog; all traits that are highly prized in service dog work. Puppy raisers are volunteers.

Some organizations are able to provide financial help such as covering veterinarian and medication expenses. Some send out basic training equipment; collars, leashes and toys. Puppy raisers are free to approach local service organizations and request sponsorships; however any pay involved comes in the form of puppy kisses.

But the most important investment by the puppy raiser is their time. The puppy needs hours spent in developing the dog/human bond. A good service dog must be very in tune to, very bonded with, their human partner. This puppy/human bond is so important that service organizations often require that even their breeding stock be in foster homes.

The puppies are not whelped in a kennel setting but rather in the home so their contact with humans is immediate and on going from day one.

As the puppy grows, the puppy raiser is required to attend training classes. Many organizations provide a checklist of sites, sounds and places that the puppies must be exposed to. Raisers are encouraged to take the puppy with them on daily excursions.

Depending on the organization, there may be monthly meetings with a representative (trainer or counselor) from the parent organization, and medical records and quarterly reports to file.

Most of these service dog training centers are non profit. They rely on fundraising, donations, astute investments and the support of service clubs such as the Lions. In turn, some of the centers are able to place the fully trained dog at no expense to the qualified student. What an incredible, life-changing gift that can be.

Being a part of that gift, to help change someone's life, that is why I raise puppies for Leader Dogs for the Blind. I know from the beginning that the puppy is not mine to keep. I know that little bundle of fur has bigger and better things to do than live on the farm with me.

I also know that if it weren't for the program I would never have gotten to meet and spend a year with each of the 13 puppies I have been privileged to raise. An added bonus has been meeting some of the other truly incredible people associated with these organizations.

If you are a dog person looking for a way to "make a difference," puppy raising for a service school could be your calling.

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