Editor’s note: September is National Guide Dog Month! In honor, Melissa Schenkel introduces us to Zahra and the team that is preparing her for her future handler who is blind or low vision.
Meet Zahra. She is half Labrador retriever and half golden retriever. She is nearly a year old and is in training. In fact, she has been training her whole life to become a mobility aid (and likely best buddy!) to a future handler as a Leader Dog for the Blind.
Zahra’s Puppy Raiser
Zahra’s volunteer puppy raiser, Jen Dunn, became interested in the Leader Dogs for the Blind organization when she heard stories from her co-workers who were volunteers. For several years she watched her co-workers raise their puppies, and at one point she knew this volunteer position was right up her alley.
Jen has the heart and is a registered veterinary technician, so she is well-suited for this volunteer position. “[Being a puppy raiser] combines my love and knowledge of dogs with the ability to do something good for others,” she says.
Jen’s puppies have been placed with individuals in need throughout the years, and Zahra is next. Zahra will need to pass a few final tests before she will be a full-fledged Leader Dog. Jen’s job is to work with and teach Zahra all she can to best help her achieve success.
While raising a puppy takes much patience and understanding, puppy raisers do not need to have any special training, as Leader Dogs for the Blind provides comprehensive training and resources for their volunteer puppy raisers. However, puppy raisers like Jen have specific roles such as ensuring the puppies are provided with certain experiences and basic etiquette training.
“These dogs are literally bred to do this job and “training” begins at birth,” says Jen. “There are things they can’t/shouldn’t do that maybe a normal pet could. For example, they are not allowed on the furniture.”
And there are experiences future dog guides need that a typical pet would not receive. “I don’t know who her future owner will be or where they live/work,” says Jen. Leader dogs need to be well adapted to all environments and remain calm and focused in each of the differing environments, whether it be a preschool, an office environment, or a large-scale event with thousands of people. Jen’s job is to expose Zahra to as many people and places as possible.
Command training is also an important part of raising a Leader Dog puppy. Zahra is at a point in her training where Jen tries to take her almost everywhere she goes. She even took Zahra into her daughter’s preschool to teach the students about service dogs, which Jen says was rewarding.
Zahra and Jen’s Futures
After Zahra completes the puppy-raising stage, several tests are conducted. It isn’t bad news if Zahra or another puppy doesn’t pass, as the dog could have a career change and/or be adopted out.
Leader Dogs for the Blind gives the puppy raiser the first choice of adoption if a puppy doesn’t successfully pass the strict health screening or training process. Jen’s family dog, Skye, was actually one of the puppies she raised to become a Leader Dog. “She was career changed for having a harness sensitivity,” says Jen. While Skye wasn’t able to become a Leader Dog, she has brought much joy to the Dunn family.
“Since the puppies are with us for almost a year, they do feel like a part of our family,” says Jen. “My kids and other dogs love having a puppy around to play with.” Jen and her family enjoy watching the puppies grow, and they love to learn about each dog’s unique personality/quirks.
“I believe it is also teaching my kids not just about the responsibilities of raising a puppy but how to do good in the world,” she says.
Jen certainly feels like Zahra is part of the family, but the Dunn family knows they are ultimately raising her for an individual who will choose to use a dog guide. “It is hard to give the puppies back, but it’s rewarding to know that they can go on to make a difference for someone else,” says Jen.
Visit https://www.leaderdog.org to learn more about obtaining or volunteering to raise a Leader Dog for the Blind.