On Raising Puppies to Become Service Dogs

Service Dog

The first question out of everyone’s mouth is “How can you let them go?”

When I first started raising puppies for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, I didn’t know how I would react. I was excited to see how my first pup would do on her “In For Training” test to see if she would make it into formal guide dog training, I hadn’t given the actual drop-off much thought. I was not prepared for the tears and sobbing that sent me to the side of the road with my children holding me close and comforting me. That was back in the early 1990s. The puppy made it into training and I was on top of the world. What a brilliant dog! What a wonderful raiser I must have been! After a few months, she decided she did not want to play that game anymore and was released from the program and adopted by a family on Staten Island. What?!?

It was the first lesson in humility. I went on to raise many more puppies and found out it was still hard to let them go. That last week was always full of poignant moments… the last time taking the puppy to the grocery store… or church… or the library. I would sleep on the floor cradling a confused puppy that last night, coming home after the drop-off and wiping tears as I cleaned up the dog hair from the kitchen floor. After a couple weeks, I would finally wipe the nose prints off the window. Then I would call to get another pup.

Each puppy that came through my doors got lots of loving, many lessons in socializing and obedience, and then went off to choose its own future as a guide dog, or a family pet. You cannot force a dog into doing a job it doesn’t want to do. Over the years, as the training techniques advanced from corrections and choke chains to positive reinforcement and flat-buckle collars, I saw more responsive dogs that were willing to be part of a team and learn how to make decisions. They blossomed under a program that would encourage them to reach their full potential, but it would ultimately come down to a puppy choosing its own path. It was my job to see that the pup got all its tools to be able to make that decision. I had to provide the opportunities to get the pup out and about in the world and learn about varied environments and stimuli, incorporate daily sessions of obedience into real-life settings, and maintain a consistent education. By the time the pups were 14-20 months old, I had given them everything I could and then it was up to them to decide. How could I NOT let them go?!?

To learn more about raising a puppy for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, go to GuidingEyes.org.

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