Jan Williams sits in her South Tampa home playing tug-of-war with a 13-week-old tan puppy named Bonnie. The puppy doesn't belong to Williams, and their play is about more than just fun. For the next 12 to 14 months or so, Bonnie will live with Williams and her husband Eric, playing, eating and going along on shopping expeditions. With their help, the puppy is taking its first steps in a training program that in two years may lead to the grown dog guiding a visually-impaired person safely down a busy street.
From Florida to Texas, volunteers are busy raising 250 puppies for Southeastern Guide Dogs of Palmetto, a nonprofit that breeds and trains dogs for a variety of purposes, including helping veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and for arson, bomb and drug detection. The most highly trained of the animals, though, will become guide dogs for the visually impaired across the southeastern United States.
After their time is completed with volunteer raisers, the dogs go through four to six months of formal harness training at Southeastern's headquarters, followed by a 26-day period in which they guide their new owners along Freedom Walk, a practice course with many twists and turns.
One of those new owners is Debbie Cirasuolo of Largo, who got guide dog Luke last April. Cirasuolo, 55, suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary eye disease that worsens with time.
"I still can see colors and faces and walk straight ahead," said Cirasuolo, "but navigating unfamiliar territory or going where people are moving about confuses me."
Since receiving Luke, her quality of life has changed.
"Having him has given me a greater sense of dignity and independence," she said. "I had become isolated and spent most of my time at home."
Williams, 54, said she loves raising the puppies and getting them started on the road to new owners like Cirasuolo. In 2002, she got her first puppy and is now on her tenth. She has served as the coordinator for volunteer puppy raisers in Tampa since 2009 and currently oversees eight people. She expects four more by April.
Puppy raisers don't get paid for what they do.
"While we have the puppies, we also housebreak them and care for them, teach them commands and socialize them to all kinds of people," Williams said. "We expose them to every possible sight, sound, surface and stimulus."
Then, they give them up.
Carolyn Hersh of Oldsmar, a volunteer since 2007, has 15 people raising puppies under her watchful eye. Hersh, 44, emphasizes the need to expose the young dogs to different groups and situations.
"We take them with us wherever we go," Hersh said. "We have the expectation that the visually-impaired person will have as busy a life as we do."
Williams is teaching her young pup Bonnie — a "goldador," a mix of golden retriever and Labrador retriever — how to behave while wearing a "coat," a sort of fabric vest that lets the dogs know that a different mode of behavior is required.
"The puppies go crazy when they're out of their coats," Williams said, "but they are always aware of in-coat expectations."
Those expectations include not eating, drinking or relieving themselves except on command.
In their coats, "the circle of acceptable behavior grows smaller," Hersh said, "but the pups really seem to want to serve."
Puppy raisers must provide a healthy, safe environment where the dogs begin building confidence. Confidence will matter in their ultimate task.
"One day that dog will have to make decisions on behalf of its owner," Hersh said. Those decisions can be life-saving. Low-hanging tree limbs, obstacles that crop up on sidewalks, or a suddenly emerging car are among the challenges the dog and owner might face.
Williams, the Tampa puppy raiser, said she felt a calling for this type of work as a child in South Bend, Ind. Her third-grade teacher read the class Follow My Leader, a story about a little boy who lost his sight to a fireworks accident and regained his life with a guide dog.
"The wonder of it struck me even then — that dogs could make decisions for someone without vision," Williams said. "I knew I'd have to do something with those dogs."
Although Williams was hooked on the idea of working with guide dogs then, it took many years to find time to make the dream a reality.
Both Williams and Hersh are committed to staying with the program, in spite of the emotional pain both said they feel at giving up their beloved pups.
"It's not about me and the dog," Hersh said. "You know the person who receives the dog will have a life he never could have had otherwise."
Cirasuolo, the Largo recipient of guide dog Luke, has experienced the truth of Hersh's words.
"It has been quite a gift to receive Luke," she said, "and get back into my life again.