Lakewood Ranch residents take multigeneration to the next level by raising puppies bound for important guide dog work across the country.
When 11-week-old yellow lab Liberty entered Lakewood Ranch resident Gina Hagopian’s home in October, the pup stole her heart. Hardly straying from Hagopian’s side since, Liberty has accompanied her to grocery stores, restaurants and even brunch. Although the pair’s story has a happy ending, it is not traditional. Hagopian is a puppy raiser for Southeastern Guide Dogs (SEGD); Liberty is her first puppy-in-training, or PIT. When Liberty turns a year old, she’ll return to the SEGD campus to prepare for her career as a guide dog.
“Our puppy raisers teach the foundational skills service dogs and guide dogs will need,” says Leslie Shepard, director of puppy raising services. “Crate training, housebreaking, making them trustworthy within the home. They are exposing them to the outside world.”
As a top-notch guide dog program, beyond stellar genetics and professional training, a SEGD puppy’s care is an essential part of the organization’s end goal. PITs are destined to become part of a symbiotic team, their ultimate counterpart a seeing-impaired individual, a veteran or possibly a child on the autism spectrum. Puppy raisers know this from the outset.
“I look at this dog like she is not my pet,” says Hagopian, who also has a 1-year-old Airedale terrier named Stella. “The goal is to make [Liberty] a seeing eye dog for somebody. I love her. She’s so sweet. But I’m helping to train her to be a guide dog.”
Southeastern Guide Dogs supports 320 puppies each year. Each one needs TLC and basic training. Guide dogs ideally reach their career goal within two years, and even with a network of 500 raisers, due to the overlap of litters, there is a constant need for more raisers.
“The puppy raising program is the foundation of our program,” says Shepard, who has raised seven puppies to date. “If we didn’t have puppy raisers, our program couldn’t exist.”
Continued support is a major component of the program, and although it is not a requirement to have raised a dog before, puppy raisers must live near a local puppy raising group.
“People may have raised a puppy before or had dogs in their lives, but raising a puppy to be a guide dog or service dog is very different,” Shepard says. “There are specific protocols and commands that we’ll teach you.”
Qualifying entails a background check, a home visit and attending a few group meetings as an observer. The application process on average takes six to eight weeks. Raisers and their PITs must attend the local group meetings two times a month.
“The hook is there, and [the puppies] win because everyone in the group and everyone you meet is amazing and so supportive of anybody or anything,” says Alex Jeanroy, a volunteer co-coordinator for the Lakewood Ranch group. “There is a wealth of information out there.”
In addition to the area coordinators, SEGD staff oversee the local groups to also facilitate puppy raising success.
“If anyone has a problem with the puppy — if there is a problem child, so to speak — we address it at a meeting, and sometimes a trainer will say, ‘Give her to me for a few days,’” Jeanroy says.
Puppy raisers can be single, married with kids, have other pets, working or retired. Even high school and college students are encouraged to apply. It’s also possible to co-raise a puppy, such as in the case of Kim Anderman and her daughter, Camryn Brielmann. A few years ago, Brielmann had asked to add a puppy to the family. Anderman was not ready for the commitment, knowing her daughter was college-bound before long. But then a radio ad about the program piqued their interest. They waited to apply until Brielmann, a sophomore at the time but now a senior, was 16 — the minimum age requirement to be a co-raiser. The mother-daughter duo received SIS last year when she was 13 weeks old.
“It is a big commitment, and it’s been challenging,” Brielmann says. “But the people of Southeastern have been so supportive throughout the entire process. It seems like anybody could do it with the support they provide.”
On Jan. 11, Anderman and Brielmann said their goodbyes as they dropped SIS off at “canine college.” Puppies that have reached that one-year mark return to the campus with their raisers in a string of pups to attend a group freshman orientation. During the half-day event, SEGD brings in a graduated speaker and goes over the details of a semester of guide-dog training.
“It’s a bittersweet day, but we make it celebratory and try to focus on the fact that what they are doing is life-changing,” Shepard says.
“A few tears were shed, and it was very emotional,” Alderman says. “However, SEGD made the day special and helped to make it seem less about giving the dog up and more about her potential future as a service or guide dog, which is an exciting prospect. We left feeling a little empty-handed but also proud of our accomplishment and grateful to have been a part of such a wonderful program.”
Raisers can keep tabs on their pup via Instagram, and at the end of the training phase, if the dog is matched in a guide or service position, the raiser is invited back to the campus to meet the recipient. That person will decide if he or she wants to keep in contact with a puppy raiser from there.
“Our organization has a lifetime commitment to any team that we put out,” Shepherd says. “We have alumni advisers that visit teams every year, and we can give puppy raisers an update even if they can’t have contact.”
About 70% of puppies find a career with SEGD, but the 30% that don’t go on to loving homes, and raisers have the first option to adopt them.
In addition to the longer-term commitment of raising, there are other opportunities. Puppy starters are needed when a puppy is ready but there is not a raiser ready just yet. Puppy sitters help with a puppy for two to three weeks. Finishers are needed when a raiser endures an unexpected life change and cannot complete the raising.
“We have something for everyone,” Shepard says. “It truly is altruism at its best. Our raisers give so much, but then they tell us what they have received.”