Just Say Yes
Service dogs are more than someone’s eyes and ears
Jamie Carr has been fostering puppies since the mid-1990s to be service dogs. She still has a hard time saying good-bye when they have to go.
Photo by Carrie Snyder
When I was a little girl, I wanted to pet every dog I came in contact with. My mother taught me to always ask the owner first, so I would bother every person with a dog that came my way. One day, while at an airport, I asked my mom if I could pet a German shepherd that was lying in a corner, and she told me no. That was the day I learned about service dogs.
When the term “service dog” is mentioned, most people think of a dog wearing a harness attached to a man with dark glasses. Service dogs have many more jobs than just guiding the blind. There are service dogs for a variety of medical conditions besides blindness, as well as ones who work for rescue teams and police.
Let’s start with guide dogs, otherwise known as seeing-eye dogs. They go everywhere with their visually-impaired person, from the movies to the mall and even out to dinner. When employees see the harness, they know that this dog has had special training to be with its owner and is allowed in when other animals are not.
What about service dogs without harnesses? There are hearing dogs for the deaf, dogs to help those with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and medical dogs who alert their person when they need to take their medication. Though these dogs wear a vest while working, people sometimes have a harder time recognizing them as service dogs and the owner may need to produce paperwork or the dog’s license.
Since beginning my quest for information, I have learned so much about service dogs of all kinds. I even know several of these incredible animals personally, and now, no longer a little girl, I am what’s known as a puppy raiser.
Puppy raisers are the first step in the process of training a service dog. When the dogs are very young, they need a lot of individual attention. Puppy raisers, including my family, temporarily adopt one of the dogs. We housebreak the puppy and teach him or her basic household manners such as sit, stay, lie down, come, and Hey! Don’t eat my shoes! Some places, like Guiding Eyes for the Blind, require the raiser and the puppy to attend specific classes every week for the first five months, followed by biweekly classes from then on. Others, like Freedom Guide Dogs, only require a semester or two of puppy classes, which can be attended anywhere such as a local humane society.
The amount of time a raiser lives with a puppy depends upon the organization. Some facilities ask for the dog back in a year. Others let raisers hold onto the puppy for 13 to 15 months. After the allotted time with its raiser families, the puppy goes back to the organization where it was born. The facility can then train the young dog for whatever type of service it will be going into.
The organization that my family raises puppies for, Freedom Guide Dogs, uses “step-ladder” training, which means that if a dog isn’t good enough to be a seeing-eye dog (the highest level of training), it may become a PTSD or medical dog. This helps to ensure that, unless the dog has a medical condition or the wrong temperament, most of the puppies will graduate and be used to their fullest potential.
Similarly, Guiding Eyes for the Blind puts all its dogs through the training needed to be a seeing-eye dog. If, for whatever reason, the puppy is released from the program, it may go an alternate route, helping children on the autism spectrum, for instance. If the puppy is unsuited for any of the programs, the dog is put up for adoption, with raisers getting first dibs.
Unfortunately, because of both the limited number of raiser families and financial constraints, there aren’t enough service dogs for all those in need. With enough raisers and financial support—as many organizations don’t charge disabled persons for the puppies—there would be more dogs and more help for those who need it.
The prospect of raising a dog prompts many people to say, “I can’t do that. I wouldn’t be able to give the dog back.” Jamie Carr, who has been raising puppies since the mid-1990s and lives in Otis, can attest to this reaction. While she has seen many dogs come and go, she still has a difficult time saying good-bye.
“Nothing makes it easier,” Carr says. “Getting a new puppy soon after can help to fill the void and make it a little better, but nothing can make it easier.”
After you’ve opened your home, your life, and your heart to another living creature for an entire year, it’s extremely difficult to part. But you know going into it that there will be a good-bye. And you know that the adorable little puppy chewing on your shoes and peeing on your floor is someday going to change somebody’s life more dramatically than you could ever imagine. That dog will be someone’s eyes or ears, a security blanket that will do anything for his or her person with unwavering loyalty. That dog will someday be somebody’s best friend, bringing its person an invaluable kind of freedom and protection.
Olivia D’Agostino, 17, lives in Williamstown and is a homeschooler. She graduated a year early, and she and her family are on a yearlong travel across the United States in an RV. She will go to college in the fall and plans to major in creative writing.
Interested in Raising?
Freedom Guide Dogs,
1210 Hardscrabble Rd.
Cassville, New York,
Alison Sinnott, head of the puppy-raising
Guiding Eyes for the Blind,
611 Granite Springs
Rd., Yorktown Heights, New York,