If you have ever spoken with a person who uses an assistance dog, you know that these dogs change lives. Whether it's a PTSD dog helping a military person return to "regular life," a hearing dog providing alerts to a person who cannot hear anything from the doorbell to a fire alarm, or a service dog providing aid to a person lacking mobility, these dogs are capable of miracles.
And what if you were offered the opportunity to be a part of one of those miracles? Most of us would certainly give the offer serious thought.
Last week was all about miracle workers, because it was International Assistance Dog Week (August 7-13), a week designated to honor service dogs and those who make those assistance dogs possible.
The teams of people needed to breed dogs, raise puppies, and train dogs satisfactorily to be service dogs are a hardworking lot, spread throughout the country, and they are affiliated with various service dog organizations.
More miracles, of course, are dependent on a bigger pipeline of puppies. As Katie Malatino, public relations coordinator for Canine Companions for Independence in Santa Rosa, California, says: "In order to provide more assistance dogs free of charge for people with disabilities, Canine Companions is gradually increasing the number of puppies in our program. Additional volunteers are a critical part of our mission."
So how do you get involved? Organizations that train service dogs use all sorts of volunteers. People are needed to help with running events, taking a shift at a fair or a mall where the organization is distributing literature, and assisting with all kinds of tasks related to running a business.
But perhaps the most selfless volunteers of all are the people who become puppy raisers. They willingly take a dog into their homes for about sixteen months and agree to take the dog out with them on excursions at all times possible, take them regularly for training classes (in which the puppy raiser also participates), and do everything they can to help this dog become a service animal.
Puppy raisers always know that if they do their jobs well---and the dog's temperament is right---the dog will go on to live with someone else, being their eyes or their ears or an extra pair of hands. And of course, the dogs will always be the person's first alert in case of an emergency.
Puppy raisers may be losing a puppy they loved, but they will come as close humanly possible to helping bring about a miracle.
Heartbreaking to have to give up a puppy? Yes. Heartwarming to see that dog function at the highest level in making another person's life better... you bet!
How Puppy Raisers Feel
Sondra Thiederman is now raising her tenth puppy for Canine Companions for Independence, and she loves doing it. "My most memorable moment was when I handed over the leash of a service dog I raised to the woman she is now assisting. I can only describe it as a profound feeling of ' rightness' - as if something 100% positive was happening and that we were a part of something special."
Another puppy raiser, Mary Milton, says she is having the time of her life as a puppy raiser. "It is such an honor and privilege to see how these assistance dogs really do help people with disabilities become more independent. It is life-changing for them."
And a couple, Jolie and Gene Marzo, wrote in an email: "If we can help make someone's life better by raising an assistance dog, then we are lucky and proud to do it. The person's smile is all we need to keep us going!"
So are you tempted?
Double-Check Your Plan
Like any other type of volunteer work, you want to make sure you feel comfortable with the organization you contact. You also need to be sure that being an on-the-ground puppy raiser is for you.
To do this, check what assistance dog programs are in your area. Assistance Dogs International sets the standards for assistance dog training. By visiting their site, you can click on a map for your region of the country to see what programs might be near you. Visit, offer to do some onsite volunteering with them (that, too, is very much appreciated), and talk to puppy raisers.
Canine Companions, the largest nonprofit providing assistance dogs, has offices in many parts of the country, and some of their puppy raisers live far afield. However, getting to know an organization is certainly much easier if you have an opportunity to meet some of the people.
Once you have some programs to check out, visit their websites. The Canine Companions website has a list of responsibilities to which puppy raisers commit. Socialization---taking the dog out to experience all types of social situations and public environments---as well as attendance at local obedience classes are two elements that are vital to returning with a well-mannered dog who knows basic commands.
Another organization I have had recent contact with is Susquehanna Service Dogs, located in Pennsylvania. They want puppy raisers somewhat nearby as they provide training classes and veterinary care near their headquarters. In addition to puppy raisers, they keep a list of puppy sitters... people who are familiar with the program so that they can fill in for a day or a week or longer if puppy raiser needs to be away and can't take the dog with them. This seems like a good way to test out whether full-time puppy raising is for you.
If you decide to apply to be a puppy raiser, you will have plenty of opportunity to have any additional questions answered during the application process.
More Dogs, More Miracles?
"If I hadn't done this, I never would have had the joy of feeling that my efforts had, in fact, contributed to helping another human being live a more independent and productive life," says puppy raiser Sondra Thiederman.
Susan Tyson of Susquehanna Service Dogs adds: "We're changing people's lives one dog at a time!"
To read about some of the lives that have been changed, see the story about Mary Hill, who needed to retire her first service dog so she is now one year into life with her new dog, or Professor John Terhorst, who teaches chemistry at Vanguard University and knows exactly why his students are always smiling in the classroom. There's also Heather, a hearing dog, who makes Jeanne Glass's life complete.
Also read about John Wiesniewski and his dog, Slate. Slate has helped two veterans who suffered symptoms of PTSD. There is also a story about a diabetic alert dog, Ija, who worked in the classroom with a teacher.
And many organizations have active facebook presences where you can keep up on the puppies and the progress with the people with whom they are eventually paired.