These four-legged friends are under strict orders to tag along to the grocery store, movies and any sporting event. They climb aboard buses, sit by the table at restaurants and visit the clinic. Everywhere their temporary owners go, they trek too.
Such is the life of a young guide dog in training that will go on to help a blind person live independently or support a child with autism.
There are currently no guide dog puppies being trained in the Red Deer area but Alberta Guide Dog Services has the call out looking for more volunteers willing to take on the little pawed pooches.
“I’d love to have some puppy raisers in Red Deer,” said Sandra Cramer, puppy raising supervisor with Alberta Guide Dog Services. “The whole premise to it is that the more puppies we can get into the program, the more clients we can serve at the other end.”
The waiting list for those wanting guide dogs in the two provinces is well over a year for most. That list is now closed for the time being, due to the charity not wanting to exceed a two-year wait list. It is expected to reopen sometime later in 2014.
B.C. and Alberta Guide Dog Services’ lone office in Calgary has seen the graduation of 22 of the 104 dogs now qualified to assist the blind since the puppy raising program kicked off in Calgary in 2008.
Eight puppies are currently being raised to become guide dogs in Alberta but Cramer wants to see more. Limited resources make that tricky, however.
“In Alberta, the only puppy raising program is based out of Calgary. I am the only employee who takes cares of the puppy program and I’m part time so what we need is the ability to place puppies into homes that are close enough to me that I can get to them. That’s why I can’t place them all over the province because I can’t check in on them, evaluate the dog’s progress and all the vet issues,” Cramer said.
Any potential guide dog puppies placed in Red Deer would need to come to Calgary for monthly vet visits, social training events with Cramer and twice-a-month obedience classes.
“It really is that much more of a commitment for someone in Red Deer but if I was able to build up enough of a program in Red Deer — more than six puppy raisers — I’d be more than willing to drive to Red Deer for the classes and evaluations,” she said.
Joyce Romane and her family decided to take the plunge in 2012 and signed up to make the time commitment to raising a guide dog. They were given a black lab (also quarter golden retriever) puppy named Zax. He quickly became part of the family.
“It was life changing,” Romane, a Calgary mother of two, said. “You’re giving back to the community and it’s just a joy if you have a love of dogs at all.”
“You take them everywhere with you because our job as puppy raisers is to primarily socialize them; get them to be sitting and calm. Also, you have to get them to sit at any type of obstacle such as a curb or stairs. So they stop at every corner during your walks,” she said. “And it’s not all training. It’s love. You can’t make a really great guide dog without giving it over-the-top love.”
All of the puppy food is donated to the volunteers by Purina and the vet costs are also all taken care of by the organization. The only things puppy raisers are responsible for is a dog bed and toys.
Zax left the family last summer after the standard one year to begin the final leg of his formal training journey in Vancouver.
He will be graduating on Feb. 21 from the 20-week program and then make a permanent home with a blind woman in Vancouver.
The Romanes went to see how Zax was making out in November at the training centre and were blown away by his progress.
“I thought I’d be bawling my eyes out because I miss him so much but the exact opposite occurred,” Romane said. “We did a blindfolded walk where he led us around and I couldn’t believe how much he loves to do what he’s doing. He was amazing. He was in his zone with tail wagging.”
For more information on becoming a puppy raiser, call 403-258-0819 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.