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East County Thursday, May 19, 2022 1 month ago

Raising puppies for Southeastern Guide Dogs is serious business

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The Lakewood Ranch Puppy Raisers group lays the groundwork for a dog’s transition into more advanced guide dog training at Southeastern Guide Dogs.
by: Eric Snider Contributor

Four women clad in matching light blue shirts have assembled at the entrance of The Fish Hole, a miniature golf course at the end of Lakewood Ranch’s Main Street. Each is accompanied by a well-mannered dog on a leash. But this is no puppy play date; no, sir. This is a business meeting.

The women are volunteer puppy raisers for Southeastern Guide Dogs, a Palmetto-based nonprofit that’s one of the premier providers of service dogs in the country. They’re members of the Lakewood Ranch Puppy Raisers, one of the organization’s 37 puppy-raising groups throughout the United States, found mostly in Florida. The canines are in training to become round-the-clock support animals for people who are visually impaired, veterans with disabilities, or children and teens facing significant challenges. The organization provides the dogs free of charge.

The Lakewood Ranch Puppy Raisers have convened at this busy attraction on a cloudless afternoon in mid-March to go through a series of training exercises. They clearly adore their pooches, who remain calm and dutiful by their sides. It’s a business meeting that radiates love.

Still, there’s work to be done. The puppy raisers and their charges wend through the serpentine greens of the miniature golf course. Music blares. Sound effects ring out. Players pause their games and watch as the dogs stop and sit, and a handler places a big, yummy treat just a few feet away. Then, after a few seconds of resisting temptation, the pups are rewarded with a smaller treat. The raisers liberally dole out these bite-sized morsels, accompanied by the constant cooing of “good giiiirl,” and “good boy.” It’s all part of today’s focus on impulse control. And that includes “underfooting,” which exposes the dogs to different surfaces, such as, in this case, artificial turf and faux pebbles.

Jenni Scamardo, Southeastern Guide Dogs’ regional manager, is running the show. Late 20s, tall, brunette, she casts a watchful eye over the proceedings, delivering instructions in a no-nonsense style.

The attendees include Alex Jeanroy, the Lakewood Ranch area coordinator who’s accompanied by Mason, a 3-year-old Goldador. He did a stint as a guide dog, but the work ultimately didn’t suit him. So, Jeanroy and her husband adopted Mason in March 2021, and Mason became an ambassador dog for Southeastern Guide Dogs. He’s the only canine on hand that nearby kids are free to pet.

The Lakewood Ranch Puppy Raisers’ youngest trainee, 6-month-old Daisy, plants a wet kiss on puppy raiser Teresa Will. (Photo by Heidi Kurpiela)

Jeanne Heere has come with Andre, a 9-month-old black Lab. He’s not been neutered — Southeastern Guide Dogs might use him as a breeder — so she and her cohorts keep an eye on him around the females. Occasionally, Andre approaches one of the other dogs, perhaps with amorous intent, and Heere gently pulls him back. Teresa Will has brought Daisy, a yellow Lab — at 6 months, she’s the youngest and smallest of the bunch and, understandably, the most apt to be a tad frisky.

The pups, who are past the small and cuddly stage, were bred at Southeastern Guide Dogs’ Palmetto headquarters and went through eight to 10 weeks of early education before being assigned a human. Each of them, save Mason, wears a blue vest — called a coat — that indicates they are guide dogs in training.

Toma, a female yellow Lab, 9 months old, is tagging along with Sandy Wilkey, who began her volunteer career as a puppy raiser in 2019. “I retired (from work) and was looking for new things,” she says, “something that was productive and fun.” Wilkey effusively affirms that she found both while rearing two puppies, Ginger and Felix, who have moved on to their guide dog careers. “You have to figure out what makes the dog tick,” she explains, then offers an example: “Felix would steal socks, and you’d have to get them out of his mouth. It was a signal that he wanted to play.”

All well and good, but sock theft is no type of behavior for a guide dog. Wilkey helped rid Felix of the habit by throwing socks on the ground and rewarding him with treats when he didn’t go after them. She took the process a step further. “You know how dogs love chips?” Wilkey asks. “We got to the point where I could throw chips on the ground and he would walk right across the top of them and not eat one.”

Wilkey estimates that training a puppy requires three to four hours of concentrated work a day. The hardest part to teach? “Getting the dog to do nothing,” she responds without hesitation.

Think about it. A guide dog often has to be idle for long periods as a sightless person eats at a restaurant or a veteran with PTSD takes in a movie. There’s no room for error. The dog cannot lunge at a squirrel, bark at a stranger, chase a passing car, or any of the endless potential distractions they’ll surely encounter. It’s full discipline, full time. And it’s the puppy raisers who lay the groundwork for the canine’s transition into more advanced guide dog training at Southeastern Guide Dogs’ headquarters.

Puppy raisers Teresa Will, Jeanne Heere, Sandy Wilke and Alex Jeanroy with their guide dogs Daisy, Andre, Toma and Mason. (Photo by Heidi Kurpiela)

It’s not enough to be a dog-lover, although that’s a good place to start. Raising a guide dog is a serious commitment requiring patience, persistence, strategy, creativity and, most of all, time. The volunteers take puppies into their homes and over the course of about a year put them through a kind of basic training.

“Puppy raisers pick up a cute little bundle of 10 or 15 pounds and watch them turn into 60-, 70- and 80-pound dogs,” says Leslie Shepard, Southeastern Guide Dogs’ director of puppy raising services. “They teach them all the basic skills that they need for their future careers. Think of it as taking a preschooler through high school. The puppy raisers teach house manners, potty training, socialization, basic cues and more. They are the ones who teach the dogs how to be focused, not distracted by the world.”

Twice a month, sometimes more often, puppy raisers gather to take the dogs to an airport, a supermarket and other locations for training sessions and exposure to areas they’ll encounter during their guide dog careers.

All told, raising a puppy is an important job and can be taxing at times. But it is, above all, a fulfilling one. “I’ve done a lot of work for nonprofits, and this is the most incredible volunteer experience I’ve ever had,” says Shepard, who started raising puppies before joining the Southeastern Guide Dogs staff. “It’s so rewarding to know that the work you’ve put into this puppy can go on to really change someone’s life, to help their confidence, independence and dignity. And we shouldn’t forget that it’s fun, too.”

She’s right. Being a puppy raiser is not all work and no play. The Lakewood Ranch members gathers regularly at one of their homes to allow the dogs to enjoy fun and games with one another. And, in the process, the humans have formed lasting friendships among themselves. “Sometimes we get together without the dogs,” Alex Jeanroy says. “We can enjoy each other’s company without (the puppies) sitting underneath the table. Sometimes we need TLC too.”

All of this commitment, all of this gratification, all the love given — it brings to mind a possible occupational hazard. How do puppy raisers manage the attachment? How do they let go of this wonderful creature that’s been a constant companion for months, this soon-to-be hero dog they’ve nurtured?

Addressing attachment issues is part of puppy raiser training, Shepard says. “We tell them, ‘Of course, we expect you to get attached. We’d be worried if you didn’t. But while you might want the dog, someone else needs the dog. It’s a special gift for you to raise a puppy and then give it up.’”

Shepard adds that, during her tenure, no one has refused to return a puppy or even suggested they might.

To reinforce this notion of letting go, Southeastern Guide Dogs holds special receptions on the Palmetto campus, where the puppy raisers get to meet the person to whom the dog was assigned.

“The puppy raisers get the satisfaction 10 times over when they see the dog working,” says Shepard.

 

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