Photo by Stephanie Colman
Feb. 4 was an afternoon of hugs, tears and final words of wisdom as the adoptive parents of 36 future guide dog hopefuls delivered their four-legged “children” to the Guide Dogs of America (GDA) campus in Sylmar, Calif., for formal training.

To ease the sting of saying “goodbye and good luck” to a cherished family member, the organization hosted a special luncheon to honor those who have spent the past 18 months raising and caring for dogs with big future career plans. 

“You can call anytime to check on your dog,” said Louise Henderson, manager of GDA’s puppy department. She’s hosted dozens these events and understands the sea of emotion her audience is experiencing. “This day is harder on you than it is on them,” she added, hoping to ease their minds and hearts as they prepared to walk their dogs to the nearby kennel facility.

Puppy raisers play a critical role in the development of a guide dog.  Volunteers are entrusted with a bundle of puppy love when the pups are just 8-weeks-old. A puppy raiser’s job is to teach basic obedience and, more importantly, provide extensive socialization by exposing the pup to all sorts of sights, sounds, smells, surfaces, people, places and things. Guide dogs, and pups in training, are afforded special privileges under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which allows puppy raisers to legally bring their trainees into any public place or on public transportation, so long as the puppy or dog does not pose a direct threat to the health and safety of others.

Much like waving a child off to college, what happens now is entirely up to the individual dogs. Many will thrive in formal training where they learn, among other things, training cues for forward, right and left turns, stopping at curbs and how to safely help their person cross the street. The dogs are also evaluated for temperament and personality, which helps trainers eventually pair dogs with the best-matched visually-impaired handlers. Training is not taken lightly.  It’s a detailed process that lasts six months; after all, dogs who graduate will have handlers’ lives in their paws.

Not every dog will make the cut. Those who don’t make the grade are evaluated for other jobs such as search and rescue or detection work for law enforcement. If the dog is ultimately tagged for early retirement, his puppy raiser is offered first right of refusal on adoption.

As the raisers head home from GDA, dog-less leash in-hand, the dogs get to know their kennelmates in a ritualistic greeting pattern of butt sniffs and playful body slams.

Not exactly Ivy League material, but these pups are in for a life-changing education nonetheless. 


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