As a blind guy, I am thankful for my guide dog, Nash, and for everyone who made it possible for us to be together. It occurred to me that the people who start our guide dogs on their journey really do not get enough credit. I am not sure what we in the blind community would do without the selfless volunteers who take these infant pups into their homes, train them, love them, and then somehow manage to let these little miracles leave their lives. I spoke to a few puppy raisers to learn more about their work and what made them decide to get involved.
I interviewed Eddie Scozzare, a “professional button pusher” at the nationally syndicated Boomer & Carton radio show on WFAN in New York City; Teresa Ignatovich, a middle school teacher who has been a puppy raiser for more than 17 years for Guide Dogs For the Blind; Lauren Petersen Goodall, a piano teacher and first-time puppy raiser; Laura Marth, a medical secretary at a neurosurgery clinic; and Celeste Kusel, a puppy raiser in South Africa.
Eddie Scozzare: My wife and I, when we got married, really wanted a dog, but we were both working so it was not really feasible. Then my wife started working out of our home, and she wanted a smaller dog, and I wanted a large-breed dog. Since she was going to be the primary caregiver, she was going to probably win out, but then we heard about a puppy-raising program with The Seeing Eye. We thought this could be a good way to see if my wife could handle a bigger dog, without making a lifetime commitment.
We received a wonderful Lab-Golden named Gusto, who was aptly named as he was a handful. We were really unprepared for the depth of grief and despair when he left us. Fortunately at the time, we had already taken on our second puppy to raise, named Harley. Even though we were very upset about Gusto leaving, something about the work we had done made us feel really good. Gusto ended up being partnered with a blind man in Pittsburgh, and he is probably about retirement age now.
We decided despite the sorrow, the good we were doing was worth it, and we continued in the program. We have since raised seven pups. Five are out there in the world as working guides, and the other two are here with us.
Cooper arrived in our home on December 1, 2014. He is the eighth pup we have raised for The Seeing Eye. We had been without a pup since late April — our longest break since we got involved. The reason for the delay was that my wife, Marian, didn’t think she could go through the heartbreak again. We deeply love all of our pups, but she was especially fond of our last, Keebler, who is a sweet and sensitive dog (hey, every parent has favorites, right?). After Keebler’s town walk [a part of the training process] in October, I could tell she was getting the itch again, and since she is a puppy club leader, we did not have to wait the usual time after committing.
We begin again the cycle of love, training, growth, pride, and ultimately, despair. Of course, we want all our pups to succeed and become a companion and guide for someone in need, but we simultaneously want them back. Like all of the dogs before him, Cooper captured our hearts the moment we held him in our arms — I think it is a survival mechanism that puppies have. I couldn’t tell you exactly why we do it, but someone should do it, so why not us? We do not have the means to donate money to charities, so we give our time and not a small portion of our spirit, a bit of which is torn out and carried away with each dog who leaves.
Laura Marth: I have known about guide dogs my entire life, and I have always been amazed at the work they do. I did not realize there was a person who started this process by puppy raising. When I learned of this, I knew I had found my calling! I have been a puppy raiser for Guiding Eyes For the Blind since 2004 and am currently raising my 11th puppy.
Celeste Kusel: I got interested in puppy raising a few years ago; we actually used to call it puppy walking in South Africa. I received some information from the South African Guide Dog Association for the Blind. I had been making a few donations to them and receiving their monthly magazine. In one issue, they had an article about puppy raising, which convinced me that this was something I would like to do.
Lauren Petersen Goodall: I went to a graduation ceremony at Guide Dogs For the Blind. I had never heard of the organization, but my dad and sister wanted to go and I just went to tag along. A couple of people spoke about what a difference their guide dogs had made in their lives, and one man who was with his first guide dog talked about how he had walked with a cane for years, and after being partnered with a guide dog, he talked about how much faster he could get around. I was very impressed with the whole organization, made a donation, and of course fell in love with the puppies.
A couple of weeks later, I mentioned to my husband that we could be puppy raisers, expecting him to say no as neither of us had ever had a dog before. I was shocked when he said yes, and after I picked myself up off the floor, I made the call.
Teresa Ignatovich: I read an article in our local newspaper and thought it would be wonderful to take a dog with me almost everywhere I went. I loved the pet dogs that I had so much that I thought it would be great to have one of them with me all the time.
I am currently raising my 15th puppy for Guide Dogs For the Blind, based in San Rafael, California. I know at least three of the dogs I have raised have made it through the guide dog program, but the great things about these dogs is even if their future is not with a blind person, so many of them end up helping people. I have raised puppies who have been partnered with diabetics and also some who have made the career transition to therapy dogs.
Teresa Ignatovich: Puppy breath and the puppies being such soft, cuddly babies is the absolute best part. I also enjoy the challenges each new pup presents me with to work and overcome. It is wonderful to me to see the puppies learning, maturing, and becoming wonderful beautiful well-mannered adult dogs.
Laura Marth: That is a very tough question. Seeing my dogs be successful is such a joy. I am proud of all my dogs, even those who did not become guides. They all make people’s lives better. I feel like it is a gift I give others.
Lauren Petersen Goodall: [One of] the best things about being a puppy raiser is the puppy itself. She is a joy, she is an angel, she is a challenge, and as our son put it, she is the most adorable science project ever! Sometimes we think the puppy is smarter than we are, but when we think that, we have to think of ways to be smarter than the puppy and come up with a new training game or a new plan of action.
The second best part is the people we have gotten to know and get to hang out with. After every puppy raising meeting we talk about how nice everyone is and how much we enjoy spending time with them.
Teresa Ignatovich: The general public usually does not know that we brush our puppies’ teeth and clean their ears weekly, as well as trim their nails as necessary. I am also constantly asked by people if they can pet the puppies, as they are so irresistibly cute, but working dogs and working dogs in training should not be distracted from what they are doing by people wanting a little puppy love. It is okay to ask if you can pet the puppy, but please understand if we say no as we have our reasons.
Laura Marth: Puppy raisers are volunteers. We are not compensated, and while I cannot speak for all schools, we are responsible for supplying our puppies with food and toys.
Lauren Petersen Goodall: People think she never has any fun, that she must be working all the time. That is not true, though, as she gets to spend lots of time being just a puppy. We play with her at home all the time, and she gets to visit my husband’s office on the weekends when it is empty so she can run all around the long hallways. She gets to go everywhere with me and rarely gets left home alone like a pet dog. She enjoys walks, the mall, grocery store, restaurants, even going to the movies with us — she could not take her eyes off Ben Affleck at her first movie. She has a lot of fun, and we have a lot of fun with her.
Teresa Ignatovich: After having these pups for over a year and going through housebreaking, basic obedience, having them chew up various items, teaching them how to behave in public, loving them, feeding them, and making my home theirs, I have to give them back to Guide Dogs for the Blind for formal training and eventual placement. It is so hard to take them back to the school and leave them there; it breaks my heart every time.
Laura Marth: The dreaded letter. A letter arrives about a month before it is time for the puppy to return to school. Once the letter arrives, you begin all of your “lasts” with your puppy. I take them to all their favorite places and make sure they get to say goodbye to everyone who has welcomed us into their businesses, homes, and hearts. We did everything together for a year, and now it is time for them to move on.
Puppy raisers call it the happy sad time. We are sad to see them go, but so proud of what they have accomplished, and of course the best is yet to come for them!
Celeste Kusel: Puppy raising for the first time can be a bit tough. At first we were not wise about puppy behavior, but we now make sure we always have an eye on our puppies so they do not chew anything up and are always in a safe environment. We are now raising our fifth puppy, and all we can say is that puppy raising is really special!
Lauren Petersen Goodall: That would be my own physical strength. [Nadira] is certainly the most energetic pup in our group, and every muscle and joint in my body ached the first few weeks we had her. I could not quite pull myself together the first few days we had her — no makeup and some days no shower. It was kind of like having a human baby. Things did get easier, though, and of course I had my husband there to help.
We think it is going to be unbelievably difficult when it is time to say goodbye. I cried in the shower the other day just thinking about it. [Lauren’s husband] Casey was very sad the other day when one of the puppies in our group headed back to school. My sister looked into puppy raising the same time I did, but decided not to do it because of having to say goodbye to the puppies.
I think the only thing that makes it bearable is I saw the graduation ceremony and was overwhelmed with joy from it. So we decided to do it, and we will get used to it and probably raise another puppy. I am getting teary eyed right now even thinking about it.
Celeste Kusel: I take the puppies we train to shopping centers, try to do some road work every day, and I take them with me when I visit my mother in the retirement home. It is the highlight of Waldo’s (the puppy I am currently raising) week, and I think it is very therapeutic to the six women who live around my mother. Everyone seems to adore Waldo.
The biggest problem I am currently facing is going into malls. Even though we have permission to go into the mall, some of the security guards are not educated about the puppies. Even though the dogs where a jacket identifying them as guide dogs, the security guards are not always familiar to what a guide dog is.
Puppy raisers come from all walks of life and from all over the world. The one thing they all have in common is selflessness and wanting to improve the quality of live for someone who they may never get to meet. It takes a very special person to be a puppy raiser, and for that Nash and I would like to say thank you.
To learn more about puppy raising, visit California Guide Dogs for the Blind; Guide Dogs of America on Facebook; the Seeing Eye on Facebook and Twitter; New York Guiding Eyes for the Blind on Facebook and Twitter; and South Africa Guide Dogs for the Blind on Facebook and Twitter.
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About the author: Brian Fischler is a standup comedian and writer. He has been seen on The Today Show, published in Maxim Magazine as the Comedian of the Month, and on Top Gear USA on The History Channel. Brian also runs Laugh For Sight, a bicoastal comedy benefit featuring the biggest names in comedy that come together to raise money and awareness for retinal degenerative eye disease research. Connect with Brian on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.