International Assistance Dog Week celebrates service dogs and all they do to assist their partners to be more independent. But these highly trained service dogs don’t make the journey on their own. They are raised by a wonderful group of volunteers – our puppy raisers.
Puppy raisers raise a puppy from the time it’s 8 weeks old until it’s 18 months old. During that time, they teach the dog good house manners, basic obedience, and a variety of other skills that the dog will need when it becomes a service dog. In addition, puppy raisers take the dog out in public to many different places, such as grocery stores, malls, amusement parks, movie theaters, restaurants, and more.
After raising and training a dog for 18 months, puppy raisers often form very close bonds with their puppy. One of the questions our puppy raisers often hear is “How do you give the puppy up? I would never be able to do that.”
We talked with some of our experienced puppy raisers, and here’s what they have to say about raising puppies to become service dogs and ultimately giving them up to their new partners.
Susan has been a volunteer with us for many years, and she has raised and trained eight dogs for us. Currently, she has SSD Midge, a breeding dog and a demonstration, interview and therapy dog for us, and SSD Julia, one of the Civil War pups that recently passed her evaluation to become a breeding dog for us.
When asked how she has been able to raise and then give up so many dogs, Susan replied, “Raising a dog to become a service dog is a lot like raising children – our goal is for them to grow and learn under our tutelage so they can become a functioning member of society and then they leave. I always know that these dogs are not mine but belong to SSD.”
In addition to raising puppies, Susan often volunteers to help at Team Training, as well as in interviews and therapies, and seeing the new service dog teams working together makes it easier to let go of the puppy she raised for 18 months. “I see that a dog can make a huge difference in a person’s life,” said Susan. “Plus, I do get to see the dogs at times, or get Christmas cards from the families, so I know where the dog is and that they are doing a good job, and being cared for and loved.”
That’s not to say that there aren’t lots of tears when a dog goes to Team Training with its new partner. Sometimes, a puppy really wiggles into a puppy raisers heart, making it harder for puppy raisers to let the dog go. Crystal, another one of our long-time puppy raisers who has raised several puppies and whelped three litters for us, knows how difficult it can be to let go of a dog that you have loved for 18 months. Of her most recent service dog graduate, SSD Cabo, she said, “During my years of raising and sitting pups with SSD, it would be hard for me to think back to another dog that has personality like Cabo.”
It was difficult when Cabo started Team Training, but Crystal chose not to say goodbye and focus on how much she was going to miss him. Instead, she focused on Team Training and what a difference Cabo was already making in the life of his new partner. “I can only imagine that the first day of Team Training is like Christmas morning for the people receiving their service dogs,” she said. “The wait is finally over and after lunch, a volunteer walks each dog out to his or her partner. People get to touch, talk to, hold the leash, and begin the bonding process with their new dog. That moment alone is one that is never forgotten.”
Giving up a service dog isn’t a time for sadness, although there are almost always tears. Giving up a service dog is a time for joy, happiness, and hope for the future. The dog that you give up today to become a service dog is going to change someone’s life in the next minute, hour, day, year. And that is why people volunteer their time and hearts to raise service dogs.
If you have raised service dogs or guide dogs, please share your stories and thoughts in the comments.