Their calling: Helping others — one guide puppy at a time

Volunteers find reward in raising pups that will become guide dogs.
Published August 24 2015
Updated August 25 2015

The golden retriever puppy looked up from the floor underneath the dining table where she had been chewing on a metal chain — she's teething, after all — and locked eyes with her visitor.

In a second, she sat up and began to caress the visitor's outstretched hand with long, languid licks. Her front paws went into his lap. The puppy in her had taken over. In those seconds, she was no longer a guide dog in training. She was 40 pounds of sweetness.

Then, a quiet "down" from John Jewett, and Ruth settled back flat to the floor, now a patient puppy in training.

Ruth is one of an estimated 250 dogs in six states in training by volunteer puppy-raisers like John and Maggie Jewett of Largo. Both are retired from Pinellas County law enforcement, and Ruth is the second puppy they will train, feed, socialize and love for Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto. For up to a year, the Jewetts will work with Ruth to teach her basic commands and, more importantly, to expose her to all of the potential distractions that a trained guide dog for a visually impaired owner must learn to ignore. They will train her with commands that a visually impaired person would use, commands that need to be distinguished from normal conversation.

So along with "sit" and "stay" and "heel" will be "right right" and "left left." And perhaps most amazing of all, Ruth will learn that when she is outdoors on a lead, if she hears the command "get busy," it's time to do her business right then and there.

The training doesn't just stay at home. Puppy-raisers are required to take their dogs to the grocery store, to the mall, to the cinema, to ball games, to work — anywhere a visually impaired person with a guide dog might go, Maggie Jewett said.

The humans and their dogs also go to classes every two weeks to meet and review with other puppy-raisers. And there's a thick spiral-bound manual that details all the things they need to do — and not do — with their puppy.

After about a year of socialization and training, the puppies are returned to Southeastern Guide Dogs in a ceremony that resembles a college graduation. They even call it Guide Dog U. Puppy-raisers turn their dogs over to the trainers, who will then teach the dogs how to guide a visually impaired person, a process that takes another year.

When puppy-raisers turn over their dogs, they probably will never see each other again. "You have to remember, this isn't your dog," said John Jewett, 63.

At the turn-in ceremony for their first puppy, the Jewetts met a woman who had been paired with a guide dog. "We learned about the independence she had and lost and now had again," John said.

"You may love your dog," added Maggie, 56, "but you don't need your dog. They do."

Yet most puppy-raisers go through that painful parting and sign up for another dog.

"You spend hundreds of hours training the little guy," explained Jerry Lindley, 68, of Clearwater. He and his wife, Barbara, have been what they call "serial puppy-raisers" for eight years. Their current puppy is Roofus, a yellow Labrador. "People around where I live don't know my name, but they see me every day working with Roofus. They call me 'The Dog Guy.' "

When the Lindleys decided they wanted to join the program, they first were interviewed in their home, said Barbara Lindley, 69. "They wanted to make sure it's safe and that the dog won't be neglected."

In addition to bringing their dogs along during day-to-day activities, puppy-raisers are encouraged to take them on trips — on planes, trains and in automobiles. If that's not practical, approved puppy-sitters will continue the training while the puppy-raisers are out of town.

Puppy-sitting is what St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, 53, and his family will be doing until their ninth pup, a black Labrador named Christie, arrives. Kriseman and his family became puppy-raisers as part of his daughter's bat mitzvah project.

Their first puppy was Jim.

"We kind of got hooked," Kriseman said. "We fell in love with the dogs. We fell in love with the people (at Southeastern)."

Kriseman recalled meeting the person who was matched with Jim.

"She told us this story: 'My whole life, I have walked with a cane. When you walk with a cane, your head is down.' As she is telling us this story, tears start rolling down her face. 'Now that I have Jim, I can hold my head up high.' "

So the Krisemans signed up for another puppy. They got caught up in what veteran puppy-raisers call "the vortex": They can't say no once they see what a difference a trained guide dog makes in a visually impaired person's life.

Southeastern Guide Dogs has puppy-raiser groups in six states, and Florida has the most. There are six groups in Pinellas County alone. That's about 40 puppies in various stages of socialization. The latest group has formed in Seminole.

"It's a niche volunteer experience," said Leslie Shepherd, director of puppy-raising services for Southeastern Guide Dogs. "It takes a huge heart for someone to do this kind of work. They give a piece of it away each time they turn that puppy back in."

Before the dogs join their puppy-raising families, they receive lots of attention. Volunteers at the Palmetto facility pamper them with massages, acupressure, belly rubs, aromatherapy, even piped-in music. The result is puppies that want to please and that seek affection as a reward.

The "goldador," a cross between a golden retriever and a Labrador, is an especially popular breed for this type of work, Shepherd said. "They have a great work ethic. They bond so well with people. The idea is to get the best of both breeds."

Out of every 10 puppies that graduate into the training college in Palmetto, four will become successful guide dogs, one will be used for breeding, three to four will turn out to be better suited for other therapy work and one will not make a good companion dog. When that happens, the puppy-raisers have the first chance to adopt that dog back.

It costs about $60,000 to train a guide dog, with the money coming from grants, donations and fundraisers. There is no cost to the person who is matched with one.

There is no age limit to becoming a puppy-raiser, although there are some practical considerations. The dogs often grow to be 70 or more pounds.

"As long as you are in good physical health and can handle a large-breed dog," Shepherd said, you are a potential puppy-raiser. "My first dog was the runt of the litter and grew to 92 pounds."

Contact Fred W. Wright Jr. at [email protected]