Guide dogs begin to train when they are approximately 14 months old. So, where have they been knocking around all through puppyhood? Answer: With their ‘puppy walker’ or ‘puppy raiser’ (depending on which Guide dog school they are bred for). These are the families or individuals who take a little 8 week-old ball of canine energy for a year or more, love it, feed it, groom it, play with it, expose it to all types of things, people and places…and then say goodbye to it. That must be a sad and and very difficult time for the puppy walkers. But look what these dogs become! They are part of that awesome, elite corp of ‘dog guides’ for people who are blind. When Opal and I ‘qualified’ in our final days of training at Canadian Guide dogs for the Blind in Manotick, Ontario, there was a minor fanfare that included a ‘graduation’ party, and a ‘Puppy Walker’s Tea’. The Puppy Walker’s Tea is a get-together where the newly-qualified CGDB Guide dog and handler has an opportunity to meet the person or family that raised the dog. Other guide dog schools have a different policy whereby the handler and puppy raiser do not ever meet or access each others contact information. I was ‘on course’ with three other individuals. None of our puppy walkers (the people who had raised our dogs) could attend because of the distance involved in traveling to Manotick (some from BC, Opal’s from North Carolina). We did, however have an opportunity to speak on the telephone with the puppy walkers at a pre-scheduled time.
I wonder what it would have been like for all involved if all the puppy walkers COULD have attended. I think a Puppy Walkers Tea could be a valuable and enjoyable opportunity for some people, but potentially awkward for others. I have yet to meet A.A. ( a then-15 year old) who raised Opal, though I have spoken to her many times, exchanged letters and gifts, and e-mailed her mum (a writer) hundreds of times. I now have an arsenal of Opal stories that could curl your hair…well, that’s for another blog… Sure, WE would have gotten along swimmingly at a Puppy Walkers Tea, but I have heard stories (maybe that’s all they are) about such encounters that did not turn out quite so well. It is a tense time…gotta be. The new handler is stressed after a rigorous month of training and wants to get home and settled, the dog is transitioning from trainer to the new handler so it is probably a little stressed too, and the puppy walker walks into the midst of it all? I think that it would all go well, provided that everyone understands their roles; the puppy walker is no longer ‘top dog’ in the relationship. That dog is now in a special relationship with its blind handler. The handler must remain cool and know that their dog will recognize the puppy walker and want to express its emotion. The trainers and staff have an obligation to keep everyone clear on the ground rules for the meeting. For example, it is no longer the puppy walker’s role to give any type of command to the dog…not even ‘sit’.
I am so pleased and grateful to hear from all the puppy walkers and puppy raisers who have written to me through this blog. Please realise that those pups are treasured after you ‘let them go’. Do not think for a moment that your role is not as important as that of the professional trainers who actually train the dog to do all the fancy stuff, like stop at curbs and go around obstacles. These formative months in a dog’s life (before it trains), are critical. If you take that dog everywhere and expose it to social situations, surfaces, noises and so on, then you will have done the grunt work from which will emerge a potentially fearless Guide dog.