This article is part 1 in a real-time series about raising a guide dog. Also read “Adventures in Raising a Guide Dog, Part 2“.
Several years ago, my husband and I started a conversation about adding a dog to our family.
“If we get a dog, I want it to be well-trained,” my husband said when I revisited the subject during the COVID-19 lockdown. I knew he did not want the responsibility of raising a puppy, so I floated my idea.
“If we raise a guide dog puppy we will learn how to train a dog and do a good deed at the same time,” I replied. I offered to take the lead and we had a deal.
I reached out to an organization that provides guide dogs free of charge to blind people to enable them to live without boundaries. I was already an approved puppy sitter, taking in local pups while their raisers traveled. This time I applied to be a volunteer puppy raiser.
The organization relies on volunteer raisers to create and care for well-trained, confident, and happy puppies. They pay for all medical expenses and have several people who run local classes and are available by phone, videoconference, and text to offer advice and answer questions. My job would be to teach my puppy basic house manners and obedience; to ignore other dogs, people, and objects or food found on the floor or tables; to relieve herself on a schedule, while on a leash, in a circle and on a hard surface like a sidewalk or street; and all the other necessary skills guide dogs need to be successful. When the puppy is 16-20 months old, it will go back to the organization for formal guide training.
After I cleared the application process, I found out I would be raising a female black lab named Lester. I know Lester is an unusual name for a girl, but her generous sponsors – who happen to be my brother and sister-in-law — named her after my dear friend Leslie who died from breast cancer 15 years ago. Lester was her nickname.
The day before Lester was scheduled to arrive, we received her official portrait, via email. I clicked on the file and saw a rather serious, blank-faced puppy, looking more like a mid-level manager in a government agency than the energetic personality I was expecting. I sent the picture to my friend who also knew Leslie.
“She kind of has an old soul face,” she texted. “Like her namesake?”
“Yes,” I texted back, “I guess I was expecting something a little more mischievous, also like her namesake.”
My friend gave me an LOL and wished me a good last night of no one to care for but myself.
That summed up my anxiety, which had been building for weeks. I was afraid to fail, letting down the puppy’s organization, her sponsors, and myself. I was also terrified of having to be responsible for another living creature 24/7.
When my phone buzzed the next morning with the arrival info, I was in full panic mode and too embarrassed to tell my husband. He seemed excited, so I pretended I was, too.
After the transport driver handed Lester to me, I held her up like Nala from The Lion King and assessed. She was just 10 weeks old and weighed 18 pounds. Her paws were the size of tennis balls, and she sported a black lacquer coat and a crooked Harry Potter cowlick down the middle of her nose.
That first night I slept on the sofa next to Lester’s crate so I could get her outside quickly if I had to. In the dark, Lester started to howl and cry, likely calling out for her mommy, her siblings, and all that was familiar. This went on until the sun came up when she collapsed in an exhausted heap.
Week one: I took Lester outside to “busy” every hour so she could relieve herself. It was exhausting, but we avoided accidents and she learned quickly that her toilet was outside. Our fourth night together, Lester calmed herself within a few minutes. At about 2:15 a.m. her barking woke me from a deep sleep. I rushed her outside and she did her business. She had trouble settling afterwards, but we both managed to get back to sleep. At 3:00 a.m. I awoke to a loud, guttural sound followed by a splat. Lester had vomited and was about to vomit again (she did).
I leashed Lester to a leg of the kitchen table and cleaned up her crate while I wondered what warning signs I missed and how to help her, drawing blanks on both counts. I sat down on the floor to unclip her, ready to put her back in her crate, but she leapt into my lap and curled into a tight ball, showing me she needed to connect and be held, just as I probably did when I was a baby. I felt an instant, fierce, and overwhelming love for her explode in my gut and radiate to my heart and into my throat. That was the moment I knew I had to – and would – do everything I could to make her feel safe and loved in addition to ensure she would succeed as a guide dog. Here are some notes from my puppy raising journal.
Month one is a frustration-elation seesaw. I spend my waking hours with Lester, surprised at how challenging the simplest of tasks, like walking on a leash (she simply wouldn’t) can be. I begin the ever-important socialization as soon as possible. Every day we go on a field trip to a shopping center, grocery store, coffee shop, or library. I teach Lester her name and her “marker,” the word that signals a kibble treat is on its way if she does what I ask.
My hands have puncture wounds from Lester’s piranha puppy teeth that snag me when I give her kibble to reinforce her training. I try several tricks to make her stop, but none work. The vet tells me puppy teeth begin to fall out at four months, and the spikiest canines are the last to go. I make a note to buy more bandages. We drive to our first puppy class. Instead of sitting on the floor in front of the passenger seat where she belongs, Lester climbs all over the car and barks at me the entire way there. I cry all through class and push away thoughts of handing her to the instructor and making a run for the door. That evening, she crawls into my lap and falls asleep while I read. She is soft and smells like cookies. At the end of the month Lester knows “sit,” “down,” and “crate.”
Month two is when I learn that Lester will stay put in the car if I feed her a steady stream of kibble while I am driving (don’t ask). It is also when the 5:00 in the morning barking begins. My brother and sister-in-law are more comfortable eating in restaurants than we are and take Lester out at least once a week. Afterwards she spends the night with them, giving me a much-needed chance to catch up on my sleep. Lester loves my brother’s two retrievers Phil and Mack, who welcome her into their pack like they’d been expecting her.
Lester meets my nephew’s dog in advance of family Thanksgiving. They are instant besties. She also meets our frequent visitor Boomer, an older, slower golden retriever who will be staying with us later in the month. She expresses how smitten she is by charging into him, zooming around the living room, and charging into him some more. This goes on for what seems like hours but is only 15 minutes. He growls then dives under a chair.
“He’ll be fine,” his owner says. “They’ll calm down. He won’t hurt her.”
“I am not worried about him hurting her,” I say, wondering if a house guest is a good idea, but I know Lester needs to be comfortable around other dogs in case her forever person has one as a pet. By the end of their week together, Lester and Boomer are each other’s shadow. When he leaves, Lester mopes for two days. According to Boomer’s human, so does Boomer.
Toward the end of the month, we take a field trip to The Home Depot. Lester walks up and down the aisles confident as a show dog, undeterred by the flashing lights, beeping, moving gates, and wayward carts. I take her to the side of the store with the big, noisy saw just as a customer rolls up with several planks that need to be cut. Lester does not flinch from the noise or flying saw dust. This is the first time I see the calm, fearless guide dog she is destined to become.
Our leash walking improves in month three. Lester charms all the people we meet and could easily run for mayor. We begin to have playdates with some local pups, an important part of her development. Jack, a large black lab mix, immediately tramples Lester. Within seconds she is quivering between my husband’s legs, her eyes begging to leave, which we do. On a first date, Lester takes turns chasing and being chased by Bruce, a handsome one-year-old pit bull, their tails and tongues wagging the entire time. She will not budge when it’s time to leave. We have another date and then another. Now Bruce stops in front of our house and refuses to move when he is out for his daily walk. Lester does the same when we reach his house. Bruce’s people and I think they should get their own place.
The early morning barking persists. My local contact suggests letting Lester sleep in my room. I am a light sleeper and recoil at the thought of being even more sleep deprived, but after Lester spends a weekend with my brother and sister-in-law, where she sleeps without issue in their room, I move her and her new dog bed upstairs. That night I get the best night’s sleep I have had in weeks.
Lester is drawn to laundry piles and wastebaskets, so this month our training is focused on “leave it.” I litter the floor with dirty socks, tissues, and chew toys and teach Lester to choose wisely. I watch her eyes dart from object to object. She moves toward the chew toys even though her eyes are looking elsewhere. I can almost feel in my body the pull she is fighting against in hers. Good decision-making skills are key to her success as a guide dog, so we press on. Over the next several days I drop tissues, pieces of scrap paper and sections of newspaper on the floor to enforce what she has learned.
We are now at the end of our fourth month together. My small, round-faced puppy is now a leggy, 50-pound, long-nosed dog. Even her tail, once short and whip wiry, has feathered out and lengthened. She has been to fancy restaurants, musical concerts, and medical appointments, and comes with me when I volunteer at my hospice. Lester has impeccable house manners but suddenly wants to get involved with loading the dishwasher. This morning she barks at 5:30. And I thought puppy raising would be linear.
Every time I greet Lester she covers my face in kisses, her tail a whirligig of joy. I soak it in then feel the explosion — the ache that starts in my heart and lands hard in my gut — because I know she is not my pet. I am starting to dread the day I will have to hand her back to the organization for her formal guide dog training and eventual forever placement.
This article is part 1 in a real-time series about raising a guide dog. Look for part 2 on Lester’s progress this fall.
Featured image: Lester (photo courtesy of the author)
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