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Voices of the Leader Dog Community: Lauren Eckberg and Justin Simard

A smiling woman in the foreground taking a photo of herself and a smiling man in the background with a group of black and yellow lab puppies.

Hello! Our names are Lauren and Justin and we have been hosting our Leader Dog Mom, Java, since December 2020. Lauren is an architect and works remotely for a firm based in Chicago that specializes in affordable housing. Justin is a law professor at Michigan State University. We both are animal lovers, and in addition to Java we have two cats. We’re pretty active and enjoy running, hiking, and spending time outdoors.

Since our Westie passed away a few years ago we had been thinking of getting another dog. When we moved to East Lansing a year and a half ago for Justin to start his job, we did some research on animal-related volunteer opportunities and considered being puppy raisers with Leader Dog. When we discovered the breeding host volunteer program, we thought that sounded even better! We thought it would be a fun and unique experience to whelp and raise litters of puppies, and we also liked that we would get to adopt Java when she retires from breeding.

Justin, man in dark colored, warm clothing, stands on a snow-covered trail in the woods with a black lab at his side. He's smiling at the cameraOne of our favorite parts of hosting a Leader Dog Mom has been developing our relationship with Java as she has become part of our family. We had a little adjustment period at the beginning as we developed a routine that worked for her, but she settled in pretty quickly. It was especially nice when we started noticing that she had bonded with us – if one of us got home after going out of town she would get super excited and start running around the living room with one of her toys. When she gave birth to her first litter, we could tell that she trusted us during the whelping process and when we were helping take care of her puppies.

Like other Labs, Java enjoys training and having a task to do (especially when there is a food reward). But in particular, Java loves using her nose. When we started basic scent training with her, she quickly learned to find a small box with a scented object in it when we hid it in the house. Now she gets really excited when she hears us take the box out of the closet. Java also loves her core conditioning exercises that keep her in good physical shape for her role as a Leader Dog Mom. She enjoys her nightly routine so much that when we mention the word “exercise” her eyes light up and, no matter what she was doing before, she’s instantly alert and ready to go. Java is extremely smart, and we often realize that she has learned a new word (ready, play, snow) without us even trying to teach it to her!

Hosting a Leader Dog Mom means you get to have a wonderful dog as part of your family while also contributing to an organization with an important mission. It feels very special to play a role in getting the Future Leader Dogs off to a good start. So many other trainers and volunteers will shape these puppies into successful Leader Dogs, and playing our small part in their first several weeks of life is very rewarding.

Black lab lying on a tan blanket surrounded by yellow and black lab newborn puppiesThe actual experience of hosting varies throughout the year. Most of the time Java is just like a typical family dog. She is athletic and has a lot of energy, so we take her on daily long walks. She especially likes the wooded trails nearby and trekking through the snow with us. We also play with her a lot and are always working on reinforcing her training. When she was pregnant it was more challenging getting her enough mental and physical stimulation. There is a quarantine period during her pregnancy and the time that the puppies are in our home, when we need to minimize potential exposure to diseases and avoid areas where other dogs have been. During her two-month pregnancy we put more time into training games at mealtimes and playing indoors or in our yard.

Life was very different once we had puppies in our home. Witnessing the birth of Java’s first litter was an incredible experience, especially seeing the transformation of Java’s personality and priorities. We worked with Java as a team during the birth process and while caring for the puppies, and we often just followed her lead and supported her. Her instincts kicked in as soon as the puppies were born. It was amazing how she knew exactly what to do. When she came back inside from brief potty breaks in the backyard, she would run back to the whelp area to check on all the pups and make sure they were OK. In the following days and weeks Java continued to impress us with her mothering skills.

Closeup of a newborn black lab puppy with a blue ribbon around its neckIt was our first time being around newborn puppies, so it was an exciting experience to be able to help her take care of them. This unique type of teamwork is a defining feature of the Leader Dog organization. Before the puppies were born both we and Java received lots of training that prepared us to rise to the occasion. It’s incredibly rewarding to be part of a large team of people and dogs working together to accomplish a goal, and it is amazing what the dogs can do.

Raising newborn puppies is unlike anything we had done before. The experience changed weekly and even daily since puppies grow and develop so quickly. We have only cared for one litter so far – Java gave birth to seven healthy puppies in her first litter, and we were lucky to have a very smooth first experience. The first 3-4 weeks were relatively easy since Java did most of the work feeding and cleaning the pups. Our role involved tracking the pups’ growth, providing early stimulation exercises, monitoring Java’s and the puppies’ health, and keeping the whelp area very clean.

Closeup of a newborn yellow lab puppy stretching out while sleepingAlthough we didn’t need to, we spent a lot of time just watching the puppies because they were so cute and fascinating – they spent most of their time nursing and sleeping, would twitch in their sleep as their muscles developed, and huddled together in adorable puppy piles. We enjoyed tracking milestones as they began to open their eyes and ears, learned to stand and walk, started to play with each other, and developed personalities. Our work gradually increased around the fourth week as we had more cleaning to do and started feeding the pups solid food. We also spent more time socializing the puppies by introducing them to new sounds, toys, and other stimuli.

The last week or so required the most work. Everything became much more chaotic as the puppies became real little dogs, who spent most of their time playing, fighting, barking, peeing, and pooping (a LOT of poop). We spent about an hour in the morning and an hour at night each day cleaning their area and doing laundry, and also had three mealtimes a day when we fed the pups in individual bins. We started working on very preliminary training with the pups, like waiting for them to sit before giving them food and redirecting them to a toy if they tried to bite us.

Justin sits outside on a low wall while watching yellow and black lab puppies explore the grassAlthough it was a lot of work, these final weeks were so much fun because the puppies could play and interact with us. We enjoyed letting them explore other rooms in the house, playing with them in the backyard, and introducing them to family, friends, and neighbors. They developed unique personalities, and it was hard to say goodbye when it was time to return them to campus when they turned seven weeks old. But it made it easier knowing that they were beginning their training journeys and that before long we would have another litter to raise! (Java was also happy to get all of our attention again.) We look forward to hearing more about Java’s puppies as they make their way through the program and are excited to know that some of her offspring will become Leader Dogs who will have a big impact on people’s lives.

A person whose face isn't visible holds a very young black lab puppy whose tongue is out and eyes are closed. The puppy is faced toward the camera as if standingWe expected that we would enjoy Java and her puppies, but we’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much joy she—and they—have brought to so many people. We loved having Zoom calls to introduce the puppies to friends and family, letting our neighbors meet the puppies when they were old enough for visitors, and generally sharing the excitement of puppy raising. When the puppies turned four weeks old and could safely meet visitors, Lauren’s parents drove all the way from New Jersey to see them. They enjoyed witnessing the puppies’ adorable first meal where the pups ate soaked kibble together out of a baking dish. By the time Justin’s sister visited a week later, the puppies were spending much of the time running around playing and had discovered that they loved biting each other’s tails. (The reverse, unfortunately, was less true.) With Justin’s other sister in California, we scheduled a virtual meeting to introduce the puppies to her coworkers and tell them about the Leader Dog organization. They were so inspired that they made a donation to Leader Dog and scheduled a second meeting two weeks later to see how much the puppies had progressed.

Black lab puppy lying in grass with its tongue out looking at the cameraOur puppies also helped us get to know our neighbors. On weekends, we would invite a few people to play with the puppies in the backyard. Kids especially provided great stimulation and socialization for the pups, and their parents told us it was the highlight of their children’s summer. Colleagues, students, friends, and family are always asking about Java and her litter, and she often meets her admirers when we walk her around the neighborhood. She has fans across the country and is now a minor celebrity in East Lansing!

(Post 5 with Photos #11, #12, #13)
If you are considering hosting a Leader Dog Mom, we can tell you it is a very unique and rewarding experience. The Leader Dog Moms are great companions and family pets and are athletic, playful, smart, social, and trainable. Like any young energetic dog, they also need consistent exercise, training, and mental stimulation. Java’s puppy raiser family did a fantastic job with her initial training during the year-plus that she lived in their home. When we brought her home with us, she already knew many cues, was crate trained, didn’t jump on furniture, and walked well on the leash. She adapted to our family life quickly. It then became our job to continue her training and reinforce her good behavior – which can definitely be a challenge with an energetic 18-month-old Lab.

Adult black lab lying on its side with a young yellow lab puppy lying on the adult's neckThere are limitations associated with the quarantine time when the Leader Dog Mom is pregnant and when you have puppies in your home. This quarantine is about four months long and can be expected to happen twice a year. During this time we can’t really travel, need to avoid locations with other dogs, stay close to home, and be very cautious about potential disease transmission, especially once the puppies are born. We both have relatively flexible schedules and the ability to work from home, so our lifestyle works well for hosting a Leader Dog Mom. Being home during the day makes it a lot easier to help raise a litter, and having puppies in the house makes working from home more enjoyable. A flexible schedule also helps with fitting in the required trips to campus (for breeding drop-off/pick-up, ultrasound, x-ray, and litter return). It’s a pretty intense commitment during the six to seven weeks that the puppies are in our home, but it is a relatively short period of time. There are several months between litters when Java is just a regular dog and we can have a normal schedule. Leader Dog will even board your dog for free if you need to head out of town.

Justin lies on a white couch with blue and white striped backing. He's cuddling a yellow lab puppyLeader Dog is a great organization, and the breeding department provides lots of support. There is so much information available for host homes – we received a very detailed handbook, there are resources on the breeding host website, and there are quarterly host home meetings that provide valuable information and the opportunity to connect with other hosts. We knew nothing about whelping and raising puppies going into the program, but all the information and support was provided to make it a successful experience. From the on-call vets to the breeding specialists, to our mentor and other volunteers, the support network is incredible. Even though we started hosting Java during the pandemic, we’ve still met so many great people – both volunteers and employees of Leader Dog. We’ve stayed in touch with Java’s puppy raiser, received advice from Java’s mom’s host, and look forward to staying in touch with the volunteers who raise Java’s puppies. It feels terrific to be part of this supportive and caring community. If you can handle the commitment and have some flexibility in your schedule, hosting a Leader Dog Mom is pretty much a dog-lover’s dream!

Would you like to write a future installment of Voices of the Leader Dog Community? If so, please let us know! All emails will be answered, but we can’t promise everyone will have the opportunity to participate.

Read more about our Voices of the LDB Community initiative.

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