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Dogs are man's best friend. We've known this forever; their unwavering loyalty, willingness to learn, and unconditional love makes them incredible companions. But there are dogs who do more than be a beloved family member—service dogs. Service dogs (SD) are companion animals that are taught specific skills and tasks to help a person with a disability. Dogs that are solely for providing comfort and emotional support are not service dogs; a SD must be trained to perform specific tasks related to their handler's disability.
I first learned that you can raise a future service dog at my University. Every time I was on campus, it was impossible not to pass a puppy in a little vest with "future dog guide" on the side. Being the dog lover I am, I looked into how I too could raise one of these puppies, and I can say with certainty it has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. I mean, you essentially get a free puppy for a year, who wouldn't want that!? After a year with my Service Dog in Training (SDiT) and new best friend, Tyson (a handsome black lab X golden retriever), I decided to share my puppy raising experience and answer some of the questions I get asked the most.
What is puppy raising? What does a puppy raiser do?
There are programs around the world that are always looking for volunteers to raise their puppies. SDiT Tyson is with the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides, an organization in the GTA that provides people with a service dog free of charge. Volunteers who are accepted to be a puppy raiser are given a pup at around 8 weeks old, and they keep the dog for around 9-12 months. In most cases, food and vet bills for the pups are covered, so the only thing the volunteer has to provide is time and plenty of puppy treats! Volunteers work to teach the pups basic skills, manners, and socialization. The dogs are usually welcome in most public places, (although they do not have the access rights as fully-trained service dogs) so the volunteer puppy raisers are able to give the dogs practice in all environments—restaurants, malls, schools, movie theaters—you get the idea. Each organization is different, but most have some form of puppy class and/or home visits to ensure both the dog and the volunteer are on the right track.
How will you ever give the dog back?
AKA the most common question every puppy raiser receives.
Personally, the knowledge that this is not my dog, even before I picked up my pup, is what makes it possible for me to give them back. There will be plenty of tears when my current SDiT Tyson is recalled (for his further training), but knowing that the time I have with him is limited, and that he was only temporarily mine, is what makes it easier. It also means I enjoy my time with him even more, as I only get to have this happy pup in my life for a year. It's different than losing a family pet; it's more like a child leaving the nest (although I don't have kids of my own to compare it to). You've done an excellent job raising this dog to prepare them for making a difference in someone else's life, and even though you are sad to see them go, you're more proud than anything.
'It's so sad, these dogs have to work all day and don't get to play and be a normal dog.'
FALSE! I've never seen a pet dog that lives a better life than these service dogs. They are eager to work and eager to please, so they enjoy helping their person all day. They also get to accompany their person everywhere, which is way more fun for a dog than being left home alone! Not to mention the positive mental stimulation they receive by being challenged and engaged in their daily tasks—no boredom for these pups! And when they're not working in public, they get to just be a dog at home. They may still have to perform tasks, but that doesn't mean they don't get to play, nap, and get lots of cuddles—just like any other pet dog. Personally, I make sure my current SDiT Tyson lives a full and happy life, with frequent travels, hikes, and playdates with other pups in training!
What happens after you give them back?
When the dogs are old enough, they are recalled for their advanced training. Every organization is different, but typically the dog is matched with a professional trainer who will teach the dog their specialized tasks. When the dog completes their training, they are matched with their handler. The organization will spend some time teaching the dog and handler how to work as a team, and then they are off! With our organization, Lions Foundation of Canada (LFC), there is a graduation ceremony for the dogs and handlers, and the foster family (AKA me) gets to see their pup graduate. It's a nice way to say goodbye to your pup, and see them move forward with the person whose life they'll be changing.
How can I get involved?
There's more than one way to get involved! If you can't make the time commitment of raising a dog full-time, there are other volunteer opportunities as well! Most organizations need puppy-sitters, volunteers who can watch dogs for a few days to a week or so at a time when the foster family is unable to. They can also use volunteers for various fundraisers and events. If you don't have time to give, most organizations accept donations as well. Some will even let you name one of their pups if you donate enough! If you're interested in raising future service dogs, or looking for more information, I highly recommend you search for programs in your area. If you're in the GTA, LFC Dog Guides is an amazing program, and is always looking for new foster families!