Well-trained assistance dogs can open the door to increased confidence, independence, and mobility for people living with a variety of disabilities. It’s been estimated that there are more than 500,000 assistance dog/handler teams in the United States.
Within the United States, assistance dogs are not required to be trained by a professional organization, but many of them are. And most of the time, those program dogs begin their journeys toward becoming working assistance dogs in the homes of volunteer puppy raisers.
At Guide Dogs of America / Tender Loving Canines (GDA/TLC), where I serve as the puppy program coordinator, we like to say, “Puppy raisers make teams come true!” We literally can’t fulfill our mission of “transforming lives through service dogs” without the support and commitment of our volunteer puppy raisers.
Our puppy raisers spend a little more than a year raising, training, and socializing our program dogs to the big world around them. Raisers attend training classes and monthly meetings, and work to incorporate the dogs into much of their daily lives. Dogs accompany raisers everywhere they go: to the office, market, post office, dentist, on public transportation, etc. College students bring their program dogs with them to classes, and in some cases, our high school-age junior handlers get permission to bring program dogs to school.
All of this is to help ensure our puppies grow into well-behaved, confident adult dogs ready to begin learning specialized guide dog and service dog skills when they return to our campus at about 15 months old.
People often say, “I’d love to raise a service dog puppy, but I could never give it up.” When it’s time to send your program puppy “off to college,” of course it’s bittersweet. But here’s the thing. You aren’t “giving the dog up,” you’re “giving the dog forward.” You choose to raise a program puppy to help a veteran experience relief from debilitating PTSD. You raise a program puppy so a child with autism learns communication and social interaction skills. You raise a program puppy so a person who is blind or visually impaired regains independence and stands tall and proud as they safely walk down the street – just to name a few of the specialized training programs that exist.
You raise a program puppy to transform a life.
And the best part? Most people discover it’s not just the disabled clients whose lives are transformed. Puppy raising changes lives every step of the way. From the friendships that develop working alongside fellow raisers to the intense feelings of pride when you learn your dog has been matched to a partner and you meet the new team, you’ll likely feel your life has been transformed as well.
Still not sure how you’d handle puppy turn-in day? Attend the graduation of a local service dog organization and hear from the newly matched teams themselves! You can even tune-in online on Saturday, Oct. 2 as GDA/TLC broadcasts our next guide dog and service dog graduation via the organization’s Facebook page. There’s rarely a dry eye in the house.
Raising a program puppy is a wonderful way to blend a love of dogs with a desire to make a difference. If you’re in Southern California, I hope you’ll consider raising a puppy with Guide Dog of America / Tender Loving Canines. Not in So. Cal? A quick Google search for “service dog puppy raising in AREA” will likely surface a local option. There’s *always* a need for volunteer puppy raisers.
We are currently seeking raisers to welcome puppies heading into raiser homes throughout October and beyond. To learn more about GDA / TLC’s program, visit https://www.guidedogsofamerica.org/gda-programs/puppy-raising/.