Volunteer ‘puppy raisers’ sought to train seeing eye dogs

Volunteer ‘puppy raisers’ sought to train seeing eye dogs

Courtesy photo Randy Pierce and his guide dog Quinn, who helped him climb all 48 of the state's 4,000 foot peaks in a single winter season. Quinn was a dog from Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

NASHUA – It is a popular saying that dogs are man’s best friend, but for a blind person, a four-legged companion is so much more than that – it’s a lifeline.

For Randy Pierce, president of 2020 Vision Quest, who lost his sight at the age of 22 due to a neurological disease, his guide dogs Ostend, Quinn and Autumn caused the “wonderful transformation from the person who felt helpless and hopeless,” to someone who has “an amazing life.”

“The experience is that powerful,” he said.

Pierce’s two most recent dogs, Quinn, who passed away from cancer in 2014, and now Autumn, have come to him through the organization Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a nonprofit and elite guide dog breeding and training program based in New York.

The dogs are bred not for looks, but for intelligence and manners, with 92 percent of the dogs being labradors and eight percent German Shepherds.

But the dogs are not just born ready to start work as guide dogs. The training process is intensive, and starts with volunteer puppy raisers to teach them basic skills.

Guiding Eyes needs a few puppy raisers in the Nashua area.

“It’s a huge commitment,” said Pat Webber, regional manager of the puppy program in Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire said.

Each puppy raiser has to go through screening and a dog-matching process that Webber described as being “like a very sophisticated dating service.”

For example, “a bitey puppy won’t go to a family with young children, an active puppy will have to go to someone who has the outlet for that,” she said.

But people of all walks of life have become puppy raisers, from college students to retired folks, single people to families.

The puppy raisers will get the puppies at eight or nine weeks old and have the dogs for 14 to 16 months. The dogs will be evaluated for traits like confidence, relationship with the handler and ability to handle crowds at four and 10 months.

Once the dogs leave the raisers they go back to New York for a more extensive training period before they are matched with their new families.

“The hardest part is giving them up, you have to be strong about that,” Alice Leblanc said. She and her husband Bill Leblanc, who is the regional coordinator for New Hampshire, have raised 16 puppies in the last 23 years with the organization.

“It’s a lot of in-home training,and socialization is the biggest thing,” Alice Leblanc said. “It’s like having a toddler.”

According to Bill Leblanc, raising the puppies is “a very structured process, (with) a lot of rules and regulations for how the puppies need to be raised.”

Even something that seems basic, like trimming their nails, has a series of specific steps, he said.

But the raisers don’t have to do everything on their own – the Leblancs offer puppy classes almost every other Sunday at Pilgrim Church in Nashua.

Currently there are around 15 puppies being raised in the city, and the Leblancs try to make the process as fun as possible, hosting holiday parties, cookouts and various outings.

Perhaps it is no coincidence then, that New Hampshire has the highest rate of repeat raisers of the 11 other states involved in the program.

Not all dogs will graduate to be guide dogs, for a variety of reasons that could be physical or behavioral, and if one of the dogs goes up for adoption, the raiser has the first opportunity to claim him or her.

The Leblanc’s current puppy is a 7-month-old German Shepherd named Phoebe, who Alice said is particularly rambunctious.

According to Bill Leblanc, German Shepherds are more challenging, so Guiding Eyes likes people to have experience with the breed before placing them in a home.

Bill Leblanc and Pierce, who are friends, give free presentations about Guiding Eyes and the impact of guide dogs at schools, libraries, clubs or anywhere that requests them.

“You do it for the love of the dogs,” Bill Leblanc said.

For Pierce, a longtime dog lover himself, having a guide dog made a “powerful difference” in his life, both in his mobility and his social interactions.

“I like to joke that nobody ever asked to pet my cane,” he said.

His first dog from Guiding Eyes, known in the community as “the mighty Quinn,” a labrador, was a constant companion for Pierce, and the two of them hiked all 48 4,000 foot peaks in the state together.

“Quinn and I taught each other how to hike,” he said.

He described Quinn as very serious, duty-driven and competitive, even in his playtime.

Today, three years after his death, Pierce’s emotion is still evident when he speaks of Quinn.

Autumn, his new companion, a black and tan lab retriever, joined him shortly after in March 2014.

“She is the most affectionate, joyous, fun-loving dog I’ve ever had,” he said, and added that he could not have found a better dog to help him through his grief. She sits quietly through presentation after presentation, and helps Pierce and Leblanc educate people about guide dogs.

Pierce believes it is his duty to give the dogs who provide him so much help a good life, and through that, to show puppy raisers everything that their work gives him and other blind people.

“I want to be able to show the fruits of their labors. They’re putting all their love into these dogs just to give them up,” he said. “I want to give them the incentive to do that.”

Everyone who works for guiding eyes, with the exception of people like Webber, work on a volunteer basis.

Pierce recalled a quote that he has always liked: “Volunteers are not paid, not because they are worthless, but because they are priceless.”

The guide dogs, he said, “are the most priceless give I’ve ever had in my life … puppy raisers are where it all begins. I don’t get the gift of a dog guide if they don’t do what they do.”

For those interested, there are pre-placement puppy classes where people can learn more about training. There will also be the opportunity to take a puppy home for a few days, and then, if interested in continuing with the program, sign ups will be available.

To apply to become a puppy raiser, visit guidingeyes.org or call 866-432-5227.

Hannah LaClaire can be reached at 594-1243 or hlaclaire@nashuatelegraph.com.