Since I am trying to make my blogs “count,” I want to dedicate one to something I genuinely put my love, time, and effort into.
I “retired” in 2006, fully intending to be able to continue to work at least half time. That didn’t work out, and that is another blog entirely, but I wanted the extra time to do some of the things I had always seen in my future. My future moved in on me rather quickly at this point.
On July 14, 2006, I brought home an 18 pound 8 week old black Labrador puppy. She would be in my charge for the next 18 months, at which time her future was meant to be that of a working guide dog.
There are many organizations that raise and train service dogs. I happen to live about 45 minutes from one that has been in existence for over 60 years. It was originally called International Guiding Eyes , and was founded by a man who was told that, at the age of 57 , he was “too old” to be given a guide dog.
Photo from GDA website
The link tells more of the story, but my story begins that July when I brought Drea home. Drea was one of a litter of 6, two females (black) and four males (yellow).
They were designated the “D” litter for record keeping and breeding purposes, so while I was allowed to choose her name, it needed to be within certain restrictions. It had to begin with a D, not duplicate any other puppy-in-training (PIT), and not duplicate any graduated and currently working guide dogs. It also had to be a name that reflected the dignity of her intended station. As they put it to me, a CEO of a fortune 500 company could not get up from a board meeting with his dog and say, “find the door, Poopsie”. OK, that seemed fair.
We were asked to submit 5 names for approval. Drea was my first choice. I did my research. It was Greek, meaning “courage”. Her sister became Darcy, and her brothers were Duke, DJ, Dustin, and Dakari.
Thus began a life of puppy breath, housebreaking, leash training, and questions, questions, questions.
Everywhere we went, I got a chance to teach. When Drea was very small she wore a little bib, but she soon graduated to the full yellow vest, and eventually I had to add length to the Velcro straps.
She was a big girl.
The objective is to start on day one exposing the PIT to every possible distraction. The more the better, and the more often the better. When I was interviewed it was explained to me that I MUST be able to take the dog wherever I went. Most people take them to work. They go to law offices, grocery stores, gymnasiums, beauty parlors, classrooms. I no longer worked, and I doubt many blind people would be found administering anesthesia in an operating room, so it would have been a bad match when I was working.
Instead, I had the freedom to take her to restaurants, movie theaters, concerts, and campaign rallies. I volunteered for events with her school. We went to fundraising bike rallies, girl scout events, summer reading programs at schools and in libraries. She took to an airplane like she was meant to fly. She could find a seat on a bus, scooted under it with the one command, “under”. She learned to do her “business” on leash, on a schedule, and where I told her to. She was amazing.
She even started a blog. It began on Yahoo 360 when the school children who read to her wanted to hear from her. “She” would write about the trials of a puppy of whom great things were expected.
I got a lot of questions.
The foremost was: How will you ever be able to give her up?
Others: What tricks does she do?
How does a blind person pick up the poop?
Can she read the traffic lights?
How does she make you stop if a car is coming?
Could you just keep her if you “mess up “ her training and she flunks?
Comments and criticisms: The poor thing. She never gets to just be a dog.
Why aren’t you letting her drink water?
Oh, it’s OK if she jumps on me. I love dogs.
There were many more, of course. It’s hard to think of them all, harder still to answer them to everyone’s satisfaction.
When I accepted responsibility for raising Drea, I knew at the outset that she was intended to be someone’s eyes. Having gone to a couple of the graduation ceremonies before I got her, I was aware of just how much one of these dogs can mean to someone who is living in darkness. I never expected that giving her up would be easy. That’s why they put the Kleenex on the chairs during the ceremony.
The puppy raiser gets to stand up and talk about the dog they have put their heart and soul into. And the recipient speaks a bit about what the dog is going to mean to their lives.
When the PIT reaches 18 to 20 months old they are turned in for actual training. Up until then, it has been only basic obedience and complete socialization. Now the real work begins. For the next several months the trainers work with the dogs step by step, watching them for strong and weak points. They observe them for signs of stress, signs of easy distraction, ability and strength to pull on the harness. If your guide dog stops, it can’t be because they noticed a tennis ball whizzing by.
The recipient of a guide dog is visually impaired enough to qualify. They may be completely without sight, or they may see shapes and shadows. They may have been born blind, or they may have been in an accident or have contracted some condition later in life. They are also single, married, parents, children, students, executives, teachers, telephone consultants, and lawyers. Whatever they do, their dog has to fit their lifestyle.
For this reason, I exposed Drea to as many different conditions as I could. I don’t have a cat, but my neighbors do.
I don’t have kids, but I knew where to find some.
She had to learn not to greet people with her paws on their chests. She had to learn not to swipe at someone with her paw. We NEVER teach a guide dog puppy to “shake hands.” Picture it: A blind partner with a cup of hot tea and no way to see a dog paw coming at them.
It was a whole different dog-training world for me. I had raised and trained seven pet dogs, but this was not to be according to those rules. It was a challenge, but I loved it.
For 14 months I steeled myself for the day I would have to give her up. As the time passed, though, I began to question the staff at the school. One day I said to the head of the puppy department, “Drea hasn’t been spayed yet. Are you waiting for her first heat?” They usually spay around 8 months . Drea was pretty late coming into a first heat, and I was hoping not to have to deal with the mess.
That’s when they told me that they watch genetic breeding lines very carefully. Drea and the entire “D” litter had been watched since birth as possible breeder stock. They choose only those dogs which will pass down a clean line. They try to breed out any chronic skin or ear infections or hip problems. So they didn’t plan to spay her until she underwent the testing.
That put a whole new spin on things. If she was a breeder, I could keep her. If I kept her, my freedom would have to be worked around her heat cycle and her time nursing puppies. I gave that a lot of thought. But it hadn’t happened yet. I couldn’t imagine that I was even torn. By this time I was so in love with her that I was dreading turn in day. On the other hand, she was such an amazing dog, I knew she would be a perfect guide dog for someone.
Drea, Darcy, and DJ all underwent the very extensive and expensive testing to determine their suitability for breeding. They all passed.
Once again, my life changed. I kept her, of course. Once she has had four litters, or reaches 6 years of age, they will spay her, and she will become mine for real. She will be five next month. She has had two litters, and was supposed to be bred in February, but somehow she managed to sneak her fertility peak between the two blood draws , and they chose to wait until the next heat. That could mean only one more litter.
Drea is a wonderful mother, but I will be very glad when my life no longer revolves around her schedule.
That said, I found myself agreeing to raise yet another puppy should they need a raiser. That could happen as early as next month. I’m off, now, to have my head examined.
Three of Drea’s brothers, Duke, Dustin and Dakari, are working guide dogs. That D litter was something!
Drea has one son from her first litter who just graduated.