The next time you see a puppy in a green vest, don’t pet it. It might get too excited and lose its job.
Green-vested puppies are part of the Eyes for Others, the only Yolo County guide dog puppy-raisers club currently in existence. At 8 months old, puppies are given to raisers. These volunteers can be as young as elementary school children, and they raise and train the puppies until the pups are about 14 to 17 months old.
The puppies are then sent off to the larger organization, Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB), for their last and formal training before going out into the world and making life a little easier for the community.
“Our main goal is to get these dogs as comfortable being out in public and around everyday life as possible, so a blind person can feel confident that the dog they get won’t bolt or run them into a car,” said Patricia Wight, one of the Eyes for Others leaders.
The club works with GDB to teach the puppies to socialize and general obedience for commands such as “sit down” or “stay.” GDB then takes the 14- to 17-month-old dogs to their training facility in San Rafael, Calif. or Boring, Ore. to give them formal guide dog training, which includes maneuvering through traffic.
Yolo County is currently home to nine puppies being raised and trained by 11 volunteer raisers. Although these cute little Labradors and golden retrievers may be difficult to resist petting, interacting with them can actually cost them their job and is currently a concern to some guide dog users.
“When you get approached by the general public asking to pet our dogs or when they won’t even ask and just start petting; I think that’s one of the most challenging parts,” Haas said. “Depending on the type of dog, they might be calm and OK with people coming up to them, [but] other dogs get too excited. They are learning that they can be really excited when people come up to them. Understand that when the jacket is on the dog, the dog is working and it’s always best to ask the person. But that’s probably the hardest part, especially when the dogs are very young, because everybody loves a cute little puppy.”
Contreras added that loose dogs have attacked one of her dogs three times, but fortunately, her dog was able to continue to work. Still, it would sometimes get upset and bark at other dogs out of fear, which, according to Contreras, working dogs are not supposed to do.
“I wish the public would understand why it is so important to not let their dogs [attack or harass] a guide dog, because all the money the schools have put in, the puppy raisers’ time and then the time users spend is all gone,” Contreras said.
Guide Dogs for the Blind
GDB had an operating budget of $30 million in 2011 with 82.9 percent on the core program and 17.1 percent on administration, according to the Eyes for Others website. GDB’s responsibilities include breeding, veterinary care, formal training, maintaining training facilities and training a guide dog and a blind person to work together. The cost of a guide dog team may exceed $65,000, according to the Eyes for Others website. The cost to the blind individual’s application and receiving a dog is zero.
“GDB is funded totally by donations,” said Ted Curley, GDB volunteer speaker. “We [also] have all kinds of sponsors. Some of them [are] pet food companies, [but] most are individual sponsors. Betty White is one of our biggest supporters, and in fact, she owns one of the guide dogs that came from the Davis club and was career changed. When a dog doesn’t make it through the program, they’re designated a career change dog.”
The price of a puppy
While GDB is responsible for most of the costs, puppy raisers buy the dog food and toys as their own personal donations, according to UC Davis alumna and puppy raiser Lindsay Haas.
“The vet care is covered by GDB, but everything else, such as the food, the toys [or] if I want to give the dog a bed, I pay for out of pocket,” Haas said. “It’s about $50 per month for food, and toys are generally $5 to $20 depending on how spoiled you want your dog.”
However, UC Davis has provided some financial relief.
“In [Eyes for Others], we have a special arrangement with somebody at the UC Davis vet clinic that actually gets some of our food at no cost,” Curley said. “So that’s really helpful. She’s actually a vet student and used to be a member of our puppy-raising club. She’s made an arrangement with the pet clinic to provide Purina food at no cost to our club raisers.”
In addition to cost, raisers invest a tremendous amount of time into their puppies, taking the pups everywhere they go for the 14 or so months they are with them. These include concerts, hikes, vacations and movies, as the puppies have to be trained to be comfortable in any environment a blind person may be in.
Picking a puppy
Each guide dog team is also created over the course of several months. For a blind person, the process — closely resembling college applications — begins with the selection of a school from any of the 10 different U.S. schools accredited by the International Guide Dog Federation. After the blind person chooses a school, they go through a series of hoops, including filling out applications and questionnaires, doing interviews, getting three letters of recommendation, a doctor’s note and a physical before waiting for the school’s approval. Once accepted, the blind person becomes a student and lives at the campus for around three weeks, where they learn how to use their new guide dog. The process can take anywhere between two to six months or longer, according to Contreras.
At the end of guide dog team training, the campuses hold graduations.
“The raisers are invited to the ceremony, and the people who are receiving a dog are up on a stage and are introduced one by one to come up,” Wight said. “Then the dog is brought out to them by the raiser, who then officially hands over their dog to the blind person. It’s really emotional. The raisers cry. Everybody cries.”
There are currently around 10,000 people using guide dogs in the U.S. and Canada, according to GDB, who had 2,176 active guide dog teams and 878 active puppies in 2012.
“The public usually asks me [if] my guide dog gets any free time to be a dog,” Contreras said. “I tell them that as soon as he gets home and gets all his equipment off, he can be a dog and be himself or chew on his toy or take a nap.”
To learn more about Eyes for Others and puppy raising, visit yologuidedogs.com.
JOYCE BERTHELSEN can be reached at email@example.com