Today's new breed of service dogs provides assistance in a variety of ways beyond their best-known role as escorts for blind companions. They retrieve household objects for people with limited mobility, act as ears for hearing-impaired individuals, monitor children with life-threatening food allergies and more. Some researchers are even exploring the role dogs can play aiding adults suffering from dementia.
All of these impressive adult dogs, though, start life much like any other puppy, growing up in a home where they're loved, socialized and taught basic obedience. Volunteers are a critical part of this process. Because of the high demand for service animals, most training organizations rely on outside help to oversee their dogs' early care, usually from the time a puppy is about 2 months old until sometime between his first and second birthday.
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"We could not do what we do without our puppy raisers," says Nancy Fierer, director of Susquehanna Service Dogs in Pennsylvania, which has more than 60 puppies receiving early socialization in volunteers' homes at any given time.
Who Makes a Good Volunteer?
An extensive background with dogs is not required to raise a service pup, says Joyce Thielen, board member (and three-time puppy raiser) with Canine Partners of the Rockies in Colorado. If you want to bring some puppy love into your empty nest — and make a difference in your community — becoming a volunteer "puppy raiser" may be for you.
"Puppy raising is an opportunity for someone who is nurturing and interested in the way a puppy learns," Thielen says. "You're expected to give the puppy your time, energy and love and attend regular training sessions."
Agencies ask that everyone in your home be consistent with the training methods and remain mindful that the puppy isn't a permanent member of the household. "Stay flexible, do your best, listen to your pup, ask for help and enjoy the lovely dog you are raising," Thielen says.
Many service-pup hosts are empty-nesters for whom the companionship enlivens otherwise quiet homes. "I received my puppy to train as my youngest child went off to college," Thielen says. "I had wrapped up my career with the public-school system and had just lost a parent for whom I was the primary caregiver."
Once a service dog starts working, he will accompany his future client everywhere, from medical appointments at hectic clinics to raucous family gatherings to quieter work or school environments. Time spent with a puppy raiser in a variety of situations is invaluable training. "The most important part of being a puppy raiser is to work on socialization and house manners," says Carol Nesbitt, who has raised three pups through Susquehanna Service Dogs. "You need to teach the dog self-control, house training skills and crate training."
Since socialization is so important in preparing a puppy for his career, volunteers are asked to take the dogs out as much as possible, even if it slows their routines down a bit. "You'll have the puppy with you most of the time," Nesbitt says. "That means a quick trip to the grocery store may take an extra 30 minutes. Some raisers bring their puppy to work and have a crate there."
Puppy raisers must also attend basic training classes with their charges, typically at the service organization overseeing the dogs or with an approved service-animal trainer. You'll learn how to teach basic obedience skills and will be expected to practice drills frequently. But you don't have to do it all on your own. You'll be supported by an extensive network, including professional trainers and more experienced volunteers. Most organizations also have pre-approved dog sitters on call should its volunteers need short-term puppy care.
It's only natural that after sharing your home and watching a puppy learn and grow, turning him over can be emotional. "It is very hard," says Donna Travis, a volunteer with Susquehanna Service Dogs who recently completed training a puppy for the first time. "The puppies are so cute and you've bonded."
While there's no easy solution for the pain of separation many volunteers experience, most say they find comfort thinking about the good work the dogs will do for others. "As a raiser," Travis says, "you are reminded always that it is not your dog. They're not pets; they have a job to do."
Travis received Judge, a black Labrador retriever, when he was 8 weeks old. When he was 1 1/2 years old, he began living weekdays at an advanced-training kennel, returning to her home on the weekends. At age 2, Judge left permanently to begin serving his client. Like most such agencies, Susquehanna Service Dogs does not allow puppy raisers to visit with dogs once they have moved on, but it does send Travis photos and updates about Judge's success.
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"We know he is loved and cared for and has a fulfilling life," she says. "It blesses us over and over each time we think of how he is helping someone have a life in the community again. You feel very proud knowing you had a part in that.
"It is bittersweet, but we would do it again and again," she says. "You just can't say no. Instead, you say, 'How can I not raise a puppy to be a service dog for someone?'"