Volunteers raise the puppies who grow up to become service dogs. It’s a significant commitment of time and energy. Some people do it just once as a Bucket List experience or family project. Others raise puppy after puppy. For example, Guiding Eyes for the Blind reports a 60 percent repeat puppy raiser rate among their volunteers.
Often the puppies arrive at their temporary homes at 8 weeks of age and stay for socialization and basic training until they are 12 to 18 months old. At that point, they return to the service dog organization for evaluation and advanced training in the required service tasks, if they qualify for graduation and placement.
Puppy Raiser Responsibilities
While each service dog organization has its own rules for everything from where the puppy sleeps to what kinds of toys he can have, in general, the goal of raising a service puppy is to return a young, adult dog who is:
Well socialized with a variety of people, places, and situations
Friendly to people and other animals
Well behaved, with self-control, no matter what happens
Responsive to basic obedience commands
Able to bond with new people quickly
Some organizations require you to attend regular meetings or their specific training sessions during the raising process. Others let you choose an approved local obedience class.
Some pay for everything, including food and veterinary care. Others provide some basic supplies, but ask the volunteers to cover the costs of food, veterinary care and such. Those expenses can be tax deductible.
I talked to and traded emails with people raising service puppies for the first time and people who’ve raised as many as 15 service puppies. Imagine that? Here are highlights of those conversations.
Notes from Newbies
Right now, retirees Vivian and John Eickholt are spending most of their time housetraining a service puppy named Kaplin, who wakes up and needs to “go” between 4:30-5:30 a.m.
Austin Caswell, another first-time puppy raiser, hasn’t been surprised by the responsibility and required training tasks, but says, “I didn’t imagine how good it would feel to be giving back to something far greater than myself.”
Sammi Miekle, a college student, misses her dog from home. She wanted a dog in her life, but not the lifelong commitment and expense while in school. Dusky went with her everywhere, including eight times on an airplane.
Voices of Experience
Brook Sillaby is on her third program-trained guide dog. Plus, she is currently raising her own service dog for the first time. She and her husband have also raised two puppies for a Canadian service dog organization.
Requiring a guide dog herself, Sillaby explains, “I think the main thing I’d like people to know about being a puppy raiser is that it isn’t as simple as picking up a cute puppy and taking it everywhere with you. You are raising a puppy that will become someone’s lifeline and/or helper.”
Currently raising her 10th dog in 11 years, Peggy Sundstrom explains that there is no typical day for a puppy raiser. It really depends on the dog’s age and abilities at any give time. It always begins, however, with housetraining, including relieving on command, house manners, and basic obedience.
Laurie M. Luck, KPA-CTP, a professional dog trainer, is raising puppy number 15. “I think many puppy raisers are surprised at just what their puppy is capable of learning,” she says.
Luck wants people to understand that these are not pets. You are not taking the puppy everywhere because it’s fun or convenient. You do it because the puppy needs careful exposure to many environments. Also, she mentioned how a lot of people worry that the puppies never get to be puppies. That’s not true either. She says, “They are ordinary dogs who just happen to be preparing for something extraordinary!”
Isn’t it hard to give the puppy up?
“You will get attached. Period,” says Luck. “I don’t care how many times you remind yourself that this isn’t your puppy, that he has a job to do at the end of all this, or that he’s going to be crucial to someone else’s life, you'll still be sad on turn-in day.”