Raising a future service puppy is bittersweet but rewarding.
Joanne Wilson of Laurel, Md., recalls the first time she saw one of her foster puppies assist a physically impaired client. “The woman’s cane had fallen and we asked Chase to fetch,” Wilson says. “He got it and brought it to her. I was thrilled to tears. My kids were happy and proud too. They felt personally responsible for retrieving that cane.”
The Wilsons are a repeat foster family for Fidos for Freedom, also in Laurel, an organization that trains and places service dogs. Highly trained to assist physically challenged, blind, or deaf individuals, service dogs perform tasks such as retrieving objects, alerting to a doorbell or telephone, or safely leading the way down a street.
“When a client thanks my kids for puppy raising, I think that’s when it hits them,” Wilson says. “They are very proud of their gift.”
Service dog training organizations depend on foster families, typically referred to as puppy raisers, to care for a puppy for much of his first year. These volunteer families teach the puppy basic obedience, social skills, and how to live in a home environment.
Think puppy raising might be for you? Many families enjoy the experience, but it’s quite an undertaking, and raising a potential service dog if different than raising a family pet.
Because their puppies will grow up to have important jobs, service dog training organizations tend to be selective about their foster families. You’ll be asked to fill out an application and have an interview with a representative. The organization also checks references, including a veterinary reference if you’ve owned pets, and conducts a home visit.
“We like to learn about the applicant’s previous experience with dogs, their lifestyle, and expectations. If you own a dog, we’d like to do a temperament test to get an idea of how they’ll do with the puppy,” says Karen Shirk, executive director of 4 Paws for Ability in Xenia, Ohio, an organization that provides canine companions to promote independent living.
Although previous dog experience is helpful, it’s not always required. Most organizations offer such comprehensive training and support, they won’t turn away a favorable applicant who lacks previous dog ownership.
During the interview process, ask any questions you might have. Raising a service puppy requires a significant investment of time, energy, and emotions, so use this opportunity to make sure you’re fully aware of what you’re getting into. You might find it helpful to talk to another foster family to hear their hands-on experiences.
To read more about raising a puppy to be a service dog, pick up the 2012 issue of DOGS USA. Subscribe to DOGS USA! Click here >>
To volunteer or find out more about puppy raising, contact one of these organizations:
Canine Companions for Independence
Dogs for the Deaf
Guide Dogs of America
Guide Dogs for the Blind
Leader Dogs for the Blind
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