FRIENDS ARE GOOD. Even better: friends with puppies.
The volunteers at Guide Puppies of Seattle go a step further: friends who help each other raise future guide dogs.
At a recent meeting in Phinney Ridge, a couple dozen “puppy-raisers” chatted while their energetic but obedient (and adorable) furry charges greeted each other with tails wagging. They were celebrating four dogs’ graduation from puppyhood and acceptance into “college,” an Oregon campus where they’ll work with professional Guide Dogs for the Blind trainers until they’re ready to be matched with people who need them.
But before they grow up enough for college, they need foster families who’ll give them a good start.
The puppies brought Kathi Titus and Carolyn Marck together. The two women lived near each other but likely never would have met, let alone become friends, if they hadn’t decided to raise puppies.
For years now, they and their families have helped each other raise future guide dogs. “It’s almost like communal child-rearing,” says Titus, who’s raising her 20th puppy. But it’s also like raising kids in that “You expect them to eventually leave home and have a career and find someone to fall in love with them.”
Puppy-raising is no small undertaking. The pups don’t enter formal guide-dog training until they’re 13 to 18 months old. Before then, they must learn to accommodate pretty much any situation — fireworks, handsy toddlers, traffic. And Guide Dogs for the Blind needs to know which puppies want to become guide dogs and which are more suited to what volunteers euphemistically term a “career change” — life as a pet.
Every thrice-monthly meeting is a chance for the puppies, mostly labs and golden retrievers, to practice sticking close to their humans’ sides and ignoring potential distractions. On this day, balloons bounced around on the floor. That was a planned distraction. Not planned: one accidentally popping, making the humans jump. Most of the dogs didn’t.
“Whenever anything like that happens, give them a treat and let them know it’s no big deal,” group leader Heidi Hespelt called out. Many of the puppies’ people already were reaching into their treat pouches.
The puppies go all over with their human family members: the office, the grocery store, sporting events. If their humans have an emergency or need to go out of town without them, a trained person has to look after them.
It’s rewarding, but it’s also a lot of work. “Those who’ve raised for a long time end up helping those with less experience,” Titus says.
Puppy-raisers are sent progress updates as dogs go off to college and are matched with visually impaired people.
The people who eventually get their dogs can become their friends. Titus pulled out her cellphone to show me social-media posts from the college student who has one of the dogs she raised. The young woman is thrilled that she can now walk to the library whenever she wants to.
Marie-Celeste Condon hasn’t gotten her first puppy yet, but she’s been to a few meetings in preparation. “I didn’t realize how social it would be,” she told me, as we watched humans and their canine charges mill around us. “On a regular basis, you’re with people who love dogs and who are lovely people.”