Guide dogs have long been used to help people with disabilities maintain their independence, but the dogs don't just benefit their future owners.
The road to becoming a guide dog begins about six to nine weeks after the puppy is born. He's then placed with a volunteer family to receive basic training and, more importantly, to become socialized to a variety of different stimuli. Kathleen Redmond and her family have been socializing puppies for a more than a year and a half and have found the experience to be challenging.
Redmond said she first heard about socializing guide dog puppies from her sons' adviser who socialized puppies.
"Their (school) adviser does this in her spare time and she thought it would be great for my sons, who are both dyslexic," Redmond said. "We wanted to get the boys to read more, so one of the things we told them was that if they read to the puppies the puppies would get smarter."
As part of the socialization process, the puppies are exposed to different stimuli, such as playing children, car alarms, different animals and other noises they will encounter throughout their lives.
"You want dogs that are easily adaptable," Redmond said.
Making sure the puppies are exposed to a full host of noises is very important because guide dogs must be able to handle chaotic situations, said Michelle Brier, marketing and communications director for Guiding Eyes for the Blind.
"When the puppies receive socialization training they gain a database of situations and sounds they can refer to that allows them to shrug off chaotic situations," Brier said.
In addition to exposing the puppies to various stimuli, they also receive basic training such as going to the bathroom on command.
"The dogs need to learn to go to the bathroom on command because their owners won't necessarily be able to wait as the dog sniffs every hydrant it can find," Brier said.
For the Redmonds, who socialize at least two puppies twice a month, it has been a very positive experience; however, it's always a challenge when the puppies move on to their new owners.
"Even in a short period of time you get to know their personality and the first time we had to bring the puppies back the boys were in tears," Redmond said. "When I come back to the house it feels like a real loss."
David Rucquoi and his family have been socializing puppies for Guiding Eyes since 2009 after he and his wife felt it would be beneficial to their family to raise dogs but not have to experience the pain of watching the animal grow old and die.
"I love dogs but there were several things I didn't want to deal with in terms of costs and having to endure watching a dog die," Rucquoi said. "Giving the dogs up after several months is hard but I think it's a lot easier than seeing them put down."
In addition to having the opportunity to raise multiple dogs, Rucquoi said the chance for his kids to see the people who benefit from the guide dogs is a very special moment.
"When we went to the graduation for the guide dogs a few weeks ago, it was hard to see the dog we had socialized but when our kids saw what it meant to the person who received the dog they were all very enthusiastic about continuing to socialize the puppies," he said.
As hard as it is to give the puppies back to GEB Redmond said it's something she sees her family doing for a long time.
"It's a great way to teach responsibility. It's such a dynamic program and I think it's a lifelong commitment," she said.
Once the dogs are about 16 to 18 months old, they return to GEB where some will begin training as future guide dogs. However, not all of the dogs will be trained as guide dogs, Brier said.
"We like to say the dogs choose their own careers because some will become guide dogs and other will go into different programs. We have dogs who participate in the `Heeling Autism Program' which pairs a dog with an autistic child to provide a measure of safety," Brier said. "Some of our dogs will even become pets and are offered to people who want them."
For dogs who receive training to guide the blind, training consists of a four- to six-month period where the dog learns how to navigate with a blind person and help them avoid potential obstacles.
"The dogs can guide a person around scaffolding or low-hanging tree branches. The dogs also learn to disobey commands, so if their owner tells them to move forward but the dog sees a car coming, it won't move," Brier said. "Those are the types of obstacles that would be difficult to navigate with just a white cane."
Because the families who help socialize puppies are required to attend training sessions on a regular basis, Rucquoi is hoping more families in Darien will get involved so a training program can be conducted in town.
"If we get enough people the training could be held in Darien. We're always looking for more dog sitters and raisers," he said.
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