By Guide Dog Mobility Instructor Ashley Nunnelly
Some of you may know that my start in the service dog industry was as a puppy raiser. I started raising when I was 19 years old and a student at the University of Georgia. I fell right into the puppy raising community at that time. The friends that I made while bringing my puppy to meetings and trying my best to socialize and train a silly little puppy and help set it up for success to be a guide dog are the same friends that I still talk to and lean on for advice and support—the same way they were there for me for advice and support back when we were all learning to raise puppies together.
When I was on my third puppy and graduating from college, I was a tad lost as to what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be. Once again, the puppy raising community was there for me! I started working for Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind with college volunteer groups as well as incarcerated groups of puppy raisers. Half of my week was spent on the “outside” and half on the “inside.”
There is a lovely saying, “Inside every guide dog beats the heart of a puppy raiser.”
And I have to say: that is so true. What my first job in this industry taught me was that the heart of that puppy raiser is the same whether they are a college student, a retiree, a young family or someone wearing inmate tans.
Being a puppy raiser is a truly selfless act.
You bring home a roly-poly, fat-bellied, piranha-teethed, giant-eyed bundle of joy. Maybe it’s been years since you’ve had a puppy, maybe it’s the first time you’ve raised a puppy—but no matter where you are, I assure you you’re in for a shock.
THEY DON’T SLEEP. Or they do—and immediately they pee when they wake up, probably during the two seconds you took your eyes off of them and they wander off and get into trouble.
But then you look at those giant eyes and ears. You watch the wonder they experience as they’re seeing everything in the world for the first time. And you laugh and you love them.
I’m telling you: you always think that you logically know that they’re never yours and that you’ll be a little detached. But you love them anyway.
You watch them grow and explore. Their legs get longer, which means that they move faster to get into trouble. And the whole time, you know that you have a burden and a responsibility.
There is a silly, lanky puppy in front of you and it’s your job to help give them the skills to literally have someone’s life in their paws one day.
Sometimes you see the puppy and you think, “How will you ever guide someone who’s blind, you supreme doofus?” And sometimes you look into their eyes and you see the supreme sweetness in their souls that tells you that maybe they’ll be ready one day.
When I moved to Michigan to take on the role of an apprentice guide dog mobility instructor (GDMI) at Leader Dog, I knew not a soul here. I moved 15 hours away from all my friends and family, and I was alone for the first time in my life.
And then the puppy raising community was there for me. I started going to Leader Dog puppy meetings and I felt like I was at home. When I’m there, I’m surrounded by the same hearts that I knew from home with my friends, my old groups and the inmates. I was surrounded by those hearts that beat inside every guide dog.
Puppy raisers attend monthly (often more) meetings with volunteer puppy counselors. They work very hard to learn skills to best prepare their puppies for success. The same way that clients experience a crash course in how to handle a dog and build dog skills, puppy raisers do the same under the guidance of experienced volunteers and the puppy development department at Leader Dog. It can be HARD. Often you’re dealing with a teenage pup that is pushing boundaries and you just want to cry. Then you look at their sweet brown eyes and you know that they’re learning right there with you. And you have a fantastic community around you who can say, “Oooh yeah, I’ve been there before!”
It didn’t take me long after I started working at Leader Dog to get the itch to raise a puppy again. I co-raised a lovely golden retriever named Elliott with another GDMI, Christie Bane. Elliott was the first floppy-eared thing that I had raised. Previously I had raised collies, German shepherds (GSD) and Ronnie, my lovely GSD/collie cross. So, to me, Elliott was a DREAM. He was easy and adaptable. He was a little silly—I was used to a more serious personality type—but he kept us laughing and I, despite my best intentions, fell head over heels for him.
My puppy raising group knew that I was a GDMI, and on the day of Elliott’s turn-in for training, there was a puppy meeting going on at Leader Dog’s campus. I walked out of the room after turning my baby over to a friend and coworker, and despite knowing he would be well cared for and that his trainers would be my dear friends, I had tears streaming down my cheeks as I walked out of the room.
One of the puppy raisers at the meeting looked at me and said, “Wow. We really are all the same.”
And I have to say—we are. We all have the same heart.
There are puppy raisers at Leader Dog who have raised upwards of 20‒30 puppies. That is ASTOUNDING. Years and years of their life and their love have been dedicated in service to others. They have had countless sleepless nights, potty training accidents and tearful turn-ins. All because of a strong belief in Leader Dog’s mission.
To all of you puppy raisers: please know just how deeply I appreciate you. I have nicknames for your baby and I sing silly songs to them and I know exactly where they like to be scratched. I take the time to know their personality and ask them every day if they still like this job.
I know first-hand how disappointing it is for my puppy to be career changed for medical reasons or because they just didn’t like doing the job and showed it through distractions or concern.
But as an instructor, I appreciate and I know your work. I cherish your sweet pup, and I know that when I give that dog to a client to change their world, a piece of your unique and special heart is beating in there. And that’s how I know that that silly, roly-poly bundle of joy and teeth is ready to take on the world with their special client.
Thank you for what you do,
Photo by Puppy Raiser Michelle Valenti of Future Leader Dog Finn.