“How will you be able to give him up?”
That is the question I am most often asked when people see me walking my guide dog puppy, Pierce. How will I be able to give him up after the year, after becoming attached to and learning to love this dog who started out as a 15 lb. chubby puppy and is now, at (only) four months, already a sleek, powerful dog of 44 lbs?
Of course, I will get attached, but I also knew, from the very beginning, that I am committing myself to raising a pair of eyes for someone with visual impairment. That after my year of love and training – and suffering chewed sunglasses (oy! I just left them on the coffee table for a second), puppy biting (I am NOT your toy!!!), peeing and pooping in the house (but I just took you out fifteen minutes ago!), some digging fun in my garden (zinnias are supposed to stay in the ground!) my Pierce will, hopefully, have the qualities needed to begin his career as a guide dog.
I have been a volunteer with the Israel Guide Dog Center for almost 18 years. I was a Puppy Raiser first, then a foster mom for a breeding dog, then I helped out in the clinic. For about ten years now, I have had the pleasure of taking visitors around the Center, telling them about our fascinating thirty-year history during which we have grown from the small, “mom and pop startup” on a Moshav, into the big beautiful, state-of-the-art campus in the center of Israel. I take pleasure in explaining what it takes to turn a roly-poly mischievous puppy into a mature, responsible, thinking dog who can profoundly change a person’s life (and I have the stories to prove it).
And now I’m a Puppy Raiser once again!
So what is involved? What are the special things that Puppy Raisers teach their charges that you may not know? Of course, we teach them the basic commands that any well-mannered dog should know: sit, down, sit up, stand up, stay, wait, come. This is all done using positive reinforcement, lots of treats and oodles of love.
We also teach them the very important command, “busy busy.” This is very important so the dog does his business when his handler wants him to – and quickly if you please! Recall that ultimately, he will have a very special job … to walk and lead, and it won’t be very smart to have a dog that just stops when he pleases to poop or pee.
I will teach him to walk on a short leash at a steady pace on my left, pulling very slightly (enough to lead, but not enough to send me flying) and to ignore barking dogs, people going “here doggie, here doggie,” and any p-mail along the route. He will learn not to scarf dropped sandwiches and donuts on the sidewalk … and when it’s a lab puppy, this is especially challenging…labs will eat anything and everything. They don’t know the meaning of “finicky.” Later on, I will also teach him “yemina” (turn right) and “smola” (turn left).
Puppy raisers can never allow the dog on the bed or the sofa. They (the dogs, not the people) are taught to never jump up on anyone in greeting.
Guide dog puppies are fed only their own food. Never anything “human” (well, except for peanut butter or carrots if we need “special treats”). They cannot ever get the slightest idea that human food is for them because a counter-surfing, begging, whining, drooling dog, is not a dog that will be appreciated in a restaurant or another person’s home.
But all is not rules and learning. We also have lots of fun with our dogs. My Pierce didn’t even need one lesson to learn to fetch! It was totally natural. (There’s a reason they are called Labrador retrievers!) Stuffed toys, short sticks, empty soda bottles … all make great toys and help them get rid of some of their puppy energy, although there is usually at least one bout of the “zoomies” every day.
Just not balls. We are not allowed to play with balls because these are common items, and we don’t want them to ever get distracted when they will eventually be working.
Then there are the perks of being a puppy raiser, the best of which is to be proudly walking your beautiful, noble-looking dog, decked out in his special “Guide Dog Puppy in Training” jacket, into stores and malls and restaurants. Or hopping onto the bus or train with your puppy in tow. In Israel, guide dog puppy access laws are the exact same as those for guide dogs. In other words, they are allowed into any public venue.
I got my Pierce when he was just under eight weeks. Today he is just past four months and I already love him to pieces. In another eight to ten months, I have no doubt that the tears will be streaming down my face as he goes back for the evaluation which will decide what career is best suited for him. (Only some of our puppies have the perfect characteristics to become guide dogs. Those that don’t may become special-needs dogs, or PTSD assistance dogs). But hopefully, the day will come, about six months after that, when I will meet my puppy once again, now a mature, fully trained dog who will be changing the life of a visually impaired individual in a way that is hard to imagine.
This is the miracle of the guide dog. But let me add this: miracles need financing. The Israel Guide Dog Center runs almost entirely on the good will and generosity of the public (government funding is only about 10% of the budget). If you would like to be a part of this miracle, please visit our site: www.israelguidedog.org for more information.
Linda Yechiel has been living in Israel for 40 years. She works as a translator (Hebrew to English) and English editor. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.