Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 8.23.07

Raising a dog to give it up

Ah, puppies.

Who can resist those galloping, grinning, gamboling bundles of cuddles and kisses? They steal into your heart to become family members, security guards, super-shedders, paper-shredders, stick fetchers and friends. They communicate wordlessly, share good times and bad — and stick with you ’til faithful old age.


But what if you have a physical challenge — say, visual impairment — that makes raising a young puppy a daunting prospect? What if you need a dog not just for friendship but to make simple mobility a reality in your life?

Thousands of puppy-lovers across the country give up those later years with their pups in exchange for a really good cause. Sue Burgess, a Eugene-area dog groomer, is one of those people. One of three Lane County puppy raisers working with Guide Dogs for the Blind, Burgess is now raising her fourth guide dog puppy as an adult.

For Burgess, her pup raising years started in the ’70s as a 4-H project. “Back then, raising guide pups was considered a kid’s project — there really weren’t many adults who were doing it,” she says. She successfully raised three guide-dog puppies before graduating from the 4-H program. Her love for animals guided her career choice, and she completed dog grooming school and launched her own business while raising her family.

Later, as her children matured, Burgess found time to reflect upon the good feelings she earned during those 4-H years, and wanted to recreate the experience. She soon discovered Guide Dogs for the Blind — a Boring, Ore.-based not-for profit organization — and signed up for puppy raising duty again. She applied, was interviewed and got the green light.

Once an applicant is approved as a raiser by the organization, says Burgess, the fun begins. A puppy is assigned to the raiser (most pups are bred in Guide Dogs’ California facility, but some are donated) and arrives at about 8 weeks of age.

Training begins immediately. “It makes life so much easier once they know how to walk on a leash and relieve themselves on command,” Burgess says. “So that stuff starts on day one.” Guide dogs must be trained to relieve on command for the convenience of future owners, so the raiser repeats a phrase such as “do your business” each time the pup relieves himself. With verbal cues and lavish praise, the pup soon gets the idea.

House manners are the most critical parts of training, says Burgess. Pups are taught to eat only from their own dishes, and eating “human food” is not allowed. “We don’t want them helping themselves from their blind partner’s plate,” she says. Guide dogs are taught to keep their feet on the floor, not only to prevent them from playfully jumping up on people, but also to keep them off of furniture.

Burgess says that a guide puppy becomes a large part of the raiser’s life, noting that her own dogs usually stay at home but the guide puppy goes everywhere with her. There are also separate rules for her personal dogs which a guide puppy soon understands: “My dogs sleep on my bed,” she says, “but the guide puppy sleeps on the floor.”

Puppies stay with their raisers for 14 to 18 months depending on individual development, and have progress evaluations with a trainer from Guide Dogs for the Blind on a regular basis. If a raiser has specific problems with a pup, an evaluation protocol is followed. “We want the dogs to be successful, but we also know that not every dog will make it through the training program,” says Burgess. Dogs that don’t qualify as Guide Dogs are called “career change” dogs and go on to careers in pet therapy or search and rescue work; some work as breeder dogs or hearing or service dogs. Others are adopted by their puppy raisers.

Raising a Guide Dog puppy includes many hours of public socializing with the puppy wearing an identifying jacket — a visual sign that it’s a working dog in training. Most people recognize the jacket and don’t approach the dog to give special attention. Children seem most aware of this standard, says Burgess. In fact, they tend to teach their parents not to approach. “And you do meet the nicest people,” she says, “who walk by and say, ‘Thanks for doing that.’ It’s really heart-warming.”

Puppy raisers have local support, meeting regularly with other area raisers and a leader from Guide Dogs for the Blind. The raisers “trade” puppies for several days a month, which helps the young dogs learn to live with and trust other people. During the training months, socializing experiences become increasingly more challenging until puppies have been exposed to shopping malls, grocery stores, elevators and escalators, and have traveled in cars and on public transportation.

When her pup is almost ready for graduation, Burgess plans what she calls a senior trip: She and another raiser from Corvallis take their pups to Portland for a day to experience a busier, more urban setting. “By that time, I know that, yes, this dog is ready to go on to training,” she says.

After leaving the raiser’s home, the dog spends several more months in training at the Boring campus before meeting and training with a blind partner. After the dog completes team training, the puppy raiser attends a graduation ceremony and officially hands the dog over to its new owner.

But isn’t it hard to give up the young dog you have lived with and loved for more than a year? Burgess admits that she hears this question often, and her answer is always the same: “Of course it’s hard. I cry. That happens. You take on this challenge knowing that you will be giving the dog away, and that it’s helping other people. But you know, I feel so blessed … I am honored to help because I can.”


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