- Chloe Gonzales American-Statesman Staff
When I tell people that my boyfriend and I raise guide dog puppies, their first reaction is almost always, “How do you let them go? I could never do that.”
More than 100 guide dog puppies are being raised all over Texas. All sorts of people raise puppies: retired people, high-schoolers, college students, single people, families, children (with the permission and support of their parents), people with full-time jobs. And the most fun part is that the old saying is true for guide dogs, too: It takes a village.
Tyler and I decided to raise our first guide dog puppy knowing that he would live with us for more than a year, and then we would take him to California and drop him off at the Guide Dogs for the Blind campus. There he would go through formal guide training and, we hoped, get matched with someone who needs him. We were excited at the prospect of raising a puppy with a purpose — one who would go on to do great things.
But it also was daunting: What if we fell in love with the puppy and couldn’t bear giving him away?
Getting a guide dog puppy is exciting — and uncertain. After you’ve gone to meetings with the club and puppy-sat a few times, you can sign up to be a raiser, and then you wait — you won’t know for how long — for a puppy to be available. When I saw I had a voicemail from one of the club leaders, Anina Green, about a week after we’d decided to get our own pup, I was thrilled.
“Hi, Chloe,” she said. “I just wanted to tell you that you’ll be getting your pup on April 27. It’s a male Labrador-golden cross, and his name starts with the letter E.”
That’s one of the fun parts about getting your puppy: Each litter is assigned a letter, and all you know before you meet your puppy is what letter its name starts with. None of the working guide dogs can share a name, so the puppies have some unique names. The whole club turns it into a guessing game, so in a group email, we were guessing every E name we could think of: Ethan, Egbert, Egypt, Elton, Elvis, Eeyore and so on.
That whole Monday was an anxious blur. I spent the ride to club leaders Roy and Anina’s house after work fidgeting in the car and obsessing over what his name might be.
“Well, none of us guessed his name,” Anina said as soon as we walked in the door. “His name is Escort.”
Then she led us to her kitchen, where a chunky lump of a puppy was lying on the cool tile in the corner of the room, snoozing.
Holding Escort for the first time was magical. He was so soft and sleepy — and huge! You expect an 8-week-old puppy to be small, but Escort was already larger than a lot of full-grown dogs. We attended a weekly puppy kindergarten with Roy and Anina, who showed us how to train Escort and kept up with his development.
“Umbilical cord training” is the most intensive part of raising a guide dog puppy. From the time you get a puppy until it’s about 6 months old, the puppy is on a leash. Constantly. Watching TV on the couch? You have a leash in your hand. Brushing your teeth? You have a leash in your hand. Making dinner and can’t have the leash in your hand? Puppy needs to go in the kennel. During the first eight weeks when we weren’t allowed to take Escort out in public because he didn’t have all his vaccinations, we mostly stayed at home, teaching commands to him and holding his leash while we watched “Game of Thrones.”
Out and about
Escort’s first group outing was a trip to tour the Capitol, and we were to get there by bus so the dogs could experience public transit. He was 4 months old, and he could barely hop up into the bus. He sat at my feet, cramped on the floor as it took us an hour to travel 5 miles.
On this particular trip, despite a lot of strangers talking about how cute Escort was, no one tried to pet him. This is a good thing — it’s OK to ask to pet a service dog, but it’s never OK to just reach out and pet one. This distracts the dog from its job, which is to help his handler. Similarly, it’s not good to lean over and talk to the dog, snap your fingers, or whistle at the dog. All of these things can put a working dog’s handler in danger, and it can be confusing for puppies in training, who are learning that they shouldn’t be distracted from their work.
We walked through the Capitol and listened to the tour guide talk about the various portraits on the wall. The tour itself was only about 20 minutes, which was the perfect length for Escort, who did great but was young and became bored easily.
After our tour, we headed to a bus stop near the Capitol. As we were walking along a beautiful pathway with our group of dogs on a summer Saturday, Escort hunched his back and started pooping. I was horrified — service dogs aren’t supposed to relieve themselves while wearing their vests or without being told to.
One of the more experienced raisers, Lois Foster, stopped to clean up for me, saying, “It causes less of a scene if someone else can pick it up while you keep walking with the dog. This has happened to all of us. We call it being ‘mortified.’”
Then she told me an unforgettable story involving a relieving dog, a Las Vegas casino and her family pretending they didn’t know her. “That day I understood what people mean when they say they’re mortified, and we’ve called it that ever since,” she said, laughing.
Then I didn’t feel so bad about Escort pooping on the Capitol lawn. At least he waited until we were out of the Senate chamber.
A group effort
Our all-volunteer puppy club really is like a family — a family with a lot of wonderful, freakishly well-behaved dogs. We’ve gone so many places together with these dogs. We’ve done community outreach events at the mall and at the Texas School for the Blind. Foster set up a reading program at Davis Elementary, where students practice reading to the dogs. We’ve gone to a baseball game, to a fire station, to an art museum, and to the airport to practice going through security.
Because it does take a village to raise a guide dog, you get to know all of the dogs, not just your own. Each puppy is required to be swapped for about a week every month to get used to new environments, so you become familiar with all the dogs’ quirks and endearing qualities. Puppy raiser Dona Birkhead lives on a farm, so when we swap she gets to deal with my puppy trying to get to know her chickens.
Narnia, a yellow Lab who’s still being raised in our group, for example, is incredibly smart and responds to commands immediately, but she walked slowly until her raisers did some work to encourage her to speed it up. Taz, a black Lab who’s now a working guide in Tennessee, is the sweetest dog on the planet and knows his commands perfectly, but he’s so, so big. When he gets excited, you can’t help but fear for your breakables. Yuba, a yellow Lab who’s now a working guide in Canada, was one of the first dogs we puppy-sat before we got Escort, and she impressed us so much with her demeanor and obedience that we were certain we could never get a dog to be that amazing (really, I’m still not sure we ever will — she’s perfect).
Through monthly puppy swaps, bi-monthly meetings and all the help from our incredible club, Escort went from a sleepy little lump to a dependable companion by Halloween 2015, when he was 8 months old. Tyler and I worked with him constantly — we kept a Google Doc of his relieving schedule so that we would know when he would need to go outside and what we did wrong when he had an accident in the house (and we learned that, really, it’s almost always your fault when your dog has an accident). Every night before bed we’d talk about how Escort was that day, what Escort did, what he achieved and what he struggled with and how we would deal with those things — with the help of Roy and Anina, who are always available to answer questions, from the inane to the serious.
Attached, and detaching
The hardest part about raising a puppy is that he will go everywhere with you and become your absolute best friend before you say goodbye. It’s different from having a pet dog — this puppy will be by your side everywhere, not just at the dog park or the dog-friendly patio bar. When I was nervous about going somewhere new by myself, Escort was by my side. When I didn’t want to go to the post office to drop off a package, it became fun because I got to take Escort.
When it was getting closer to the time we would have to say goodbye to Escort, he was as perfect as a 1-year-old dog can get. He walked with a perfect loose leash, obeyed us consistently and almost always made the right choices. We could trust him.
And he was closer to being ready to go everywhere with someone who needed him much more than I did.
This was when I started really dreading saying goodbye to him. I would lie in bed with Tyler at night, Escort sleeping on the floor on his side of the bed, and express my fears: Would Escort think we were abandoning him? I was more worried about him than us. We knew why we were leaving him in California. He didn’t.
“He’ll be fine! He’ll be having so much fun, he’ll forget all about us,” Tyler told me.
I hoped so.
When people asked how we could give up the dog we’d raised and loved for a year, we had a variety of answers:
“It’ll be worth it.”
“We’re going to get another one, and we’ll be so distracted, it’ll be fine.”
“We can’t. We’re considering taking him to South America and changing our identities.”
The time comes
Escort was recalled to go back to campus in San Rafael in June 2016. There were two things that kept us sane during this time: figuring out the logistics of the trip and getting our new guide dog puppy, a goofy and devastatingly cute 8-week-old golden retriever named Dodson, who would be waiting for us when we got back to Texas.
I was nervous about taking a dog to the airport, but Escort went through TSA just fine. Service dogs sit in the main cabin of the plane at your feet, and we got a bulkhead seat, so he had plenty of room. Although I’m a nervous flyer and was sure that Escort was going to feel my energy and freak out, too, he fell asleep and didn’t wake up until we were in California.
The trip was an emotional blur. When we made it to the Guide Dogs for the Blind campus the day after we arrived in San Francisco, I was too anxious to go in. We went to the mall so Tyler could buy a Giants hat, and we had some coffee — our last outing with Escort by our side.
And then we couldn’t put it off any longer.
The GDB campus in San Rafael is wonderful. The whole organization is, of course: They give these dogs to blind or visually impaired people free of charge, fly them out for two weeks of training with their new guide dogs on the campus and are available for support and provide for the dog financially for the rest of its life. The campus reflects this. It’s tranquil, beautifully designed and well taken care of. There are dorms for the students who stay on the campus, and the kennels are clean and spacious. They even have an employee stay at the kennel every night to watch the dogs and be there in case of an emergency or if one of the breeders goes into labor.
We took Escort back to the kennels, where a GDB employee showed us to what they called his “suite.” It was empty, but we were told he would get a roommate later, which comforted us — at least he’d have a friend if he got lonely, right? They brought us a bone covered in peanut butter, which was going to be an extra-special treat for Escort because guide dog puppies are given only dog food. The treats we give them throughout the day for good behavior aren’t really treats at all, just their regular kibble, so the peanut butter made him go nuts.
We gave him the bone and said our tearful goodbyes, and we walked out of his kennel, leaving him alone with his special treat. He whined as we walked away — a very tiny part of me was happy that his love for us was stronger than his love for peanut butter. But mostly I was heartbroken to know he was sad, too.
We sat in the car crying for a long time.
Saying goodbye to Escort was very, very hard. But then he went into formal guide dog training. He used the skills that we taught him to learn how to do mind-blowing things like find an empty chair or a door for his handler and to disobey his handler’s command to go forward when there was something dangerous in the way, such as glass on the ground or even an object above the dog’s head that the handler might run into.
Only about half of these dogs become guides because the work is so rigorous. Unfortunately, Escort, even after finishing all eight phases of training and passing his guide dog test, was dropped from the program for showing fear around small, noisy dogs. He went on to the Dogs 4 Diabetics program, one of the many service dog organizations that partner with Guide Dogs for the Blind, where he’s working to help someone else who needs him. In January, he was placed with woman who has diabetes, and they trained together for months. I’m delighted to say that he’s graduating in November, which means he will become her official medical alert dog.
When I see pictures of him with the woman he’s been placed with, I feel absolute joy. It doesn’t hurt that he’s not with me — seeing him accompany her on her everyday adventures makes it all worth it. The thought that he will improve her life makes me the proudest I’ve ever been.
As for us, we just took Dodson, our second guide dog puppy, back to California to start his official training. And, yes, we have yet another guide dog puppy in our home: Aziz, a yellow Lab who’s calm and sweet and learning fast. I wasn’t sure it was possible, but we love both of them just as much as we love Escort.
Now when people ask us how we can raise these dogs and then say goodbye to them, it’s easier to answer because we’ve done it, and we’re planning to do it again and again.
Here’s what we say now: It’s worth it — in every single way. It’s a life-changing experience that has brought us lifelong friends. Our hearts are bigger than they were when we joined this program, and if a dog we raise can help even one person, then we’ve achieved our goal.
It doesn’t get easier to say goodbye: We were heartbroken again when we took Dodson back, and we know it will be just as hard with Aziz. But afterward there will always be another chunky, sweet 8-week-old puppy in our house, learning to be calm and focused — and to become someone else’s devoted companion through thick and thin.