Volunteer Puppy Raisers

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Volunteer Puppy Raisers
For these “serial” puppy raisers, raising service dog pups is a worthy addiction

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All remarkable individuals were once babies in need of upbringing—and that includes service dogs. Before going on to guide the visually impaired, alert to impending seizures, or help veterans with crippling PTSD, service dogs need someone to raise them from wriggling balls of fur to competent dogs ready for school. Before they enter their formal training program at one-and-a-half to two years old (they’ll receive up to two years of highly specialized training to meet the needs of the owner they will serve), future service dogs are often brought up by volunteer puppy raisers. Most of us can't imagine doing everything it takes to raise a puppy, forming an emotional attachment, then giving up the pup just as it is turning into the perfect dog. But according to the people who volunteer for this important task, raising a service dog puppy is more than worth it—it might even be addictive.

On average, the puppies spend 18 to 24 months with their volunteer raisers, starting at about eight weeks of age. Depending on the organization, the volunteers may be responsible for covering the expenses for the puppy while with them. There are detailed training protocols that must be followed, which can make the challenging task of raising a puppy even more demanding than usual. Yet despite all that, most puppy raisers would tell you it’s more than worth it, and many do it again and again.

woman kissing her dog
Ashley Wilt and Phil

Ashley Wilt, 22, is a “serial” puppy raiser who volunteers with the U.S.-based non-profit Canine Companions. She began puppy raising when she was in high school, having convinced her parents to jump into the adventure with her. As she recalls, "I loved dogs, and putting that passion towards a project that had the chance to provide independence for someone seemed like a wonderful opportunity.” Wilt is now raising her sixth puppy and has become even more devoted to the cause. "The feeling of seeing lives changed and experiencing all the good these dogs do is truly addicting,” she says. “I don't see myself hanging up the leash anytime soon!”

Joanne Simpson and her husband Jay shared Wilt's motivation to help others, but they also realized that a puppy could bring something special to their lives. "We were at a point where we wanted something more, and we saw an ad in the paper for BCAGD (Canada-based non-profit BC & Alberta Guide Dogs) needing puppy raisers,” says 53-year-old Simpson. “We thought it would give us what we were missing—a chance to help our community and have something to share our love with at the same time.” It certainly did both of those things, so much so that the Simpsons are raising puppy 13 right now.

Jessie and Sehaj Hundal only recently made the decision to co-raise their first puppy, a black Labrador puppy named Westy with BCAGD. For them, it was a way to support the interest their eldest daughter showed in entering the veterinary science field, but as it turns out, the entire family is benefiting from the experience. “Westy has been a bundle of joy for all of us from day one,” says Jessie Hundal. “He’s also changed our lives tremendously by enforcing a healthy routine,” says Hundal. The family takes him outdoors twice a day, plus there are additional activities over the weekend, exploring of the city's hiking trails, parks, malls, and taking public transit. “The kids spend lots of time playing and bonding with Westy, and we all enjoy his unconditional love, endless cuddles, and companionship,” she says.

Woman standing in front of Gelato truck with her volunteer dog
Jessie Hundal and Westy / Photo Jessie & Sehaj Hundal

But raising a service dog puppy isn't all cuddles and games, as the Hundals have discovered. "Raising a service dog has a rigorous training schedule and requires a very disciplined approach," explains Hundal. She finds that the repetitive nature of the training can be exhausting and frustrating at times but understands that it is necessary in order to teach all the commands the puppy needs to know. And, adds Hundal, “You have to abide by certain rules and regulations, especially regarding play time, which can be quite contrary to normal dog play routines. For instance, the BCAGD handbook states: We do not want the pup to chase a ball, frisbee or stick. These are things that are seen regularly out in parks and we do not want to have our dogs distracted by them. They can also become obsessed by chasing these, which is an undesirable behaviour." The pups are hardly deprived of play, though. They get to play “fetch with rules” with other kinds of toys, as well as tug-of-war games, and their raisers are encouraged to regularly take them off leash.

Woman standing next to her dog
Gayla Cruikshank and Orinda

There are also some special perks to raising a future service dog. One is being able to take the puppies just about anywhere. Gayla Cruikshank, another Canine Companions volunteer, says, "It's really great being able to take the puppies to so many different places. I especially love bringing the pups to speaking engagements to introduce them and show off their skills. I also love bringing them to stores and watching them be super obedient and well-behaved."

The feeling of seeing lives changed and experiencing all the good these dogs do is truly addicting.

The Hundals are also greatly enjoying this aspect of having a service dog puppy. "It's a lot of fun exposing Westy to different places and situations," says Hundal, "which gives us the opportunity to practice things he will need to know in the future. He's been to the shopping mall, where he learned about using elevators and escalators, and to several restaurants, where we have worked on maintaining a down and stay. He's also visited a dental office and has accompanied me to my office at the University of British Columbia campus. You can take him anywhere indoors with his jacket that reads ‘Puppy In Training - BCAGD’."

The flip side to that is that you may find yourself rather red in the face when you are out in public representing an agency and your dog decides to misbehave—which, being puppies, they undoubtedly will. "We've had incidences where a puppy went pee or pooped in the mall, and one who would just flop over and refuse to walk when he didn't want to leave a place," recalls Simpson. And then there was the incident when Simpson and her husband were in a restaurant with the puppy tucked under the table, and the waitress came up to take their order. "She didn't know we had a dog with us," recalls Simpson, "and while she was taking the order, she felt something move up her leg. The woman shot poor Jay a dirty look before she realized the dog was there and had sniffed its way up her skirt! Good thing the pup was cute."

Puppy sitting by a wheelchair
Puppy Phil

Of course, putting so much time and effort into these cute puppies inevitably leads their temporary caregivers to become attached to them, which can make it hard to give them up when the time comes. As Wilt explains, "Sending the puppy off to the next step in their journey is definitely the most difficult part for me. Even though you go into the experience expecting it, it is still difficult to imagine until it is happening. I just try to keep in mind that while I am saying goodbye to this puppy, someone else is out there waiting for the day that they get to bring their new service dog home. The magic of their union can’t happen unless I say my goodbye. I've also found that the best way to cope while missing your previous puppy is to throw yourself into raising another!"

Simpson relates to these feelings, saying, "You always get emotionally attached—you can't help it—which means it is always heart-wrenching to say goodbye. You have thoughts of running away with the dog and changing your address so they won’t find you." Still, she tries to keep her heart in check to some degree. "When you raise these dogs," she says, "it is helpful to remember they do not belong to you. You have been given these dogs to get them started on a wonderful journey, and there is such satisfaction in seeing how they change the life of others. And when they leave and you go through empty nest syndrome, you just have to do it all over again!"

The Hundals haven't had to say goodbye to Westy yet, but they are trying to keep the purpose of having him in the forefront of their minds. As Simpson says, "We went into the program with a very clear intention to raise a service dog and fulfill the duties and responsibilities that came along with that. Our main goal is to provide him with all that he needs to be successful in becoming a service dog." When asked how they think they will feel when the time comes for their first service dog puppy to move on, Hundal says, "It will be incredibly tough to say goodbye to Westy, but we’ve made many great memories together. And we will be cheering him on all the way from the sidelines."

Woman hugging and kissing her dog
Ashley Wilt and Phil

Indeed, getting to cheer on the dogs they have raised once they “graduate” from formal training and are matched with the people they will serve is one of the greatest rewards of this kind of volunteerism. While Covid has restricted in-person graduations, Cruikshank fondly remembers seeing her pup, Orinda, on the video she received from Canine Companions. "When I watched the video of the matching process," says Cruikshank, "I lost it. I was so happy and full of emotion, knowing she had reached the pinnacle of what we worked so hard for. I just cried and cried happy tears. Then we had a Skype video introduction with her new family, and I eventually got to meet them in person this year. It was so fantastic to see her doing everything she was meant to do, but I have to admit that I was also pleased that when Orinda saw me, she remembered me!"

All of the volunteers we spoke to enthusiastically recommend the experience to those considering doing it. As Simpson states, “It’s a lifetime opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life.” 

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