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January 8, 2013 > Guide Dogs, more than bundles of fur

Guide Dogs, more than bundles of fur

By Annie Yu
Photos By Annie Yu

A young woman walked onto the stage, a black Labrador retriever enthusiastically wagging its tail next to her. This dog had accompanied her everywhere for months, becoming her closest and dearest companion. She reached the middle-aged woman in the middle of the stage, placed the leash in her hand, and tearfully said her goodbyes and well-wishes for the pair. The next morning, the middle-aged blind woman took the dog and flew back to her Wisconsin home, having just been given a new life partner - a guide dog.

The young woman was a volunteer guide dog puppy raiser for Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB), founded in 1942 for wounded World War II veterans. Now the San Rafael, California-based non-profit organization accepts eligible visually-impaired or blind students from all over the U.S. and Canada into their program. Through a process of intensive training and careful matchmaking, they create unique partnerships that enhance the mobility and quality of life for the blind.

GDB relies on volunteers to raise, socialize and train carefully-bred puppies in basic obedience and house manners from when they are around eight weeks old to between 13 and 18 months old. Even the least experienced volunteers can become knowledgeable raisers by reading GDB's official puppy-raising manual and attending regular club meetings. Chris Hollenshead, co-leader of the Fremont-based Bay Area Guide Dog Puppy Raisers (GDPR) club, said one of her jobs is to make sure the puppies are in safe situations and puppy raisers are doing their jobs the way GDB wants it done. "We train the people, the people train the dogs," she laughed.

Although filled with cuddling, tail wagging, and lots of joy, the puppy raisers' job is not easy. The time and energy it takes to raise a puppy to GDB's standards is substantial and requires a significant amount of dedication. Aside from regular meetings, raisers spend time every day walking and training the puppy in basic commands, such as "sit," "down," "stay," "stand," and "wait." They teach the puppies other specific commands as well, such as "come," "that's enough," "kennel," and "go to bed." Raisers teach the puppy to only relieve on command and to not sniff the ground or pick up inappropriate items. Puppies learn to stop at all curbs, stairs and doorways, to refuse food from anybody but their handler (even when offered) and to display appropriate house manners. In addition, raisers take their puppies to places like grocery stores, restaurants, sporting events, shopping malls and even on public transportation. "It's our job to socialize them and get them comfortable out in public," puppy raiser Laura Sanborn of Fremont said.

After the puppy raisers' job is done, the dog is "recalled" and goes back to GDB's campus for formal training. They are evaluated and some dogs with exceptional traits and temperament may become part of the breeding stock while the rest are separated into different classes and undergo intense training with professional trainers. Those that do not make it are "career changed" and may become a family pet or be transferred to a different service dog organization. Those that do make it through the training and pass the final test are matched with a blind person. The pair train together for a few weeks and eventually graduate, with the proud puppy raiser presenting the dog to the blind handler at the ceremony.

All of the work that goes into producing one guide dog can add up - Randy Hollenshead, co-leader of the Bay Area GDPR club, estimates that it takes $85,000 to raise each dog. Despite the high cost, GDB gives the dog to the blind person free of charge and even provides medical care for the dog as well as continually following up on the pair every year. GDB's commitment to ensuring that the blind person-guide dog match receives support and care is tremendous.

Not only do the blind benefit, but the puppy raisers benefit from the experience as well. Laura and her daughter Erica are currently raising their eleventh guide dog puppy, an 11-month-old golden retriever named Palm. "It really helps with talking to the public," Laura said. "It was a good thing to teach the kids too, to put that much love and time and effort into something and then give it up for somebody else who needs it more." Erica was nine years old when the pair raised their first puppy. The now 25-year-old says she was very shy as a child but gained confidence and learned to talk to people through raising her puppies.

Just giving back to the organization and helping the blind is quite a rewarding experience. "It's such a great thing," puppy raiser Michelle Soares said. "It gives people sight and freedom." Michelle's first guide dog puppy, a black Labrador retriever named Patsy, is currently in the middle of her formal training at the GDB campus.

The Fremont puppy raising club meets every Tuesday from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the California School for the Blind on Walnut Avenue in Fremont. Anybody interested in attending a meeting can call Chris and Randy Hollenshead at (510) 651-1549. Or, go to and click on "Guide Dog Puppy Raisers" under the "Volunteer" tab to learn more.

Photo caption: Louis Huemiller (left) and Erica Sanborn (right) work with puppies Parfait and Palm, respectively, in a meeting held at Lake Elizabeth.

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