Guide dogs lead a double life.
Naturally inquisitive and playful, they know that when they slip on that green jacket, they're in full guide-dog mode and all activities cease in deference to their blind human partner.
These dogs get to be this refined in knowing their place and what is expected of them thanks to volunteers like Cory Olson and his wife Diane, who take in new puppies at eight or nine weeks old and teach them basic obedience and good manners as well as help socialize them to the human world.
The Olsons brought home their newest pup two weeks ago: a black Labrador by the name of Geo who had not yet been potty-trained. They are part of a small but dedicated group of Plateau residents who raise puppies for the national organization Guide Dogs for the Blind. Currently, the group, operating under the name Future Vision, is about 10 strong, made up of residents in Enumclaw, Buckley and Bonney Lake, and they are working with five dogs for the organization.
Jana Decker and Kristen Schuver are this group's leaders. Their dogs represent the spectrum of training that guide dogs typically receive from volunteers before they are returned to the organization's 'college' in Boring, Ore., to learn specialized skills adapted for the blind as well as for final assessments and placement.
Decker's currently working with Lila, another Lab who had started training with the Olsons. Schuver was ready to say goodbye to Allegra, a Golden Retriever she had been working with the last 13 months who was ready to graduate and head to 'college.'
Socializing Volunteer Work
Prior to the dogs leaving their volunteers trainers, they typically spend between 14 to 18 months working together, and much of the training involves socializing the dogs so they get to go to a lot of places with their human trainers.
Schuver, who works at Enumclaw School District, takes Allegra to school with her. Decker, likewise, brings Lila to her office at Boeing. The dogs need to learn to tolerate not really moving for several hours at a time, Decker said. They also go to church.
At the opposite end of the noise spectrum, the dogs also learn to adapt to noisy environments such as athletic events, the grocery store and restaurants. "We get them used to being around people," Decker said. "This community is amazing in allowing us to bring the dogs in, and the businesses are just very nice and open to all of us to coming in. A blind partner has to eat. They want to go to a restaurant, get a haircut, see their dentist..."
The Olsons bring their dogs to the elementary schools during reading times. Given their different destinations, the group also swaps dogs regularly to ensure they receive the full experience of human interaction.
"We just socialize them the best we can and if it means rotating the dogs, than it means rotating the dogs," Decker said. "They have to be comfortable around kids and in an office environment."
Drawbacks: 24/7 Work and Saying Goodbye
The pups are adorable and fun to play with, but Decker doesn't deny the fact that the volunteer work is hard and there's no off time.
"It does take a family to raise it," she said. "The kids can't be the ones to do it alone."
Future Vision's guidelines for prospective puppy raisers requests that "all family members must show a willingness to learn GBD (guide dogs for the blind) puppy training techniques and be willing to participate in club activities."
The other drawback to raising guide dog pups is knowing that you don't get to keep them. Cory said it was a fear they had when they started. They have actually taken one dog back to keep.
"You know these aren't your dogs," Decker said. "Out of 12 dogs we raised, I have never taken a dog back but my daughter took one back. ... she became too attached."
Volunteers get the chance to meet the blind partner their dog is assigned to, assuming they pass all assessments, during a graduation ceremony. The volunteer actually gets to pass the leash off to the blind partner. Those who befriend the partners get the benefit of receiving regular updates about how their dog is doing. "As soon as you hand the leash off to the partner, you know why you do it," Decker said.
The Other Benefits
Lila is Decker's 12th dog. "You get hooked," she said. "After the first one, you cry and you say goodbye, and then the second one you get another puppy and you're going, 'why am I doing this again?' Next thing you know you're on your 12th dog."
The process of socializing the dogs also gives the volunteers a chance to be social creatures themselves. Decker said having her dog with her at work is a calming influence not just for her but for office mates as well.
"You have to be a senior citizen to understand how easy it would be to associate only with people your own age and just go down that road," Diane said. "This keeps you very plugged in to the community at large and multi-generational activities."
It also keeps her young. "You definitely have to think while you're doing this," she added. ''They're just fun. I would not do it if it wasn' t fun."
People in public are eager to pet the dogs and chat with the volunteers too, Cory said. "People give you recognition for what you do," he said. "It's gratifying."
"It's a wonderful way to meet people," Diane added.
And when the dogs sometimes become too overwhelming, the group members turn to each other for support, sometimes swapping dogs not so much for socializing purposes but just to give one another a break, Decker said.
Want to Raise a Pup?
Future Vision is holding an information meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 4 in Bonney Lake for anyone who wants to learn more about what commitments are required to become a volunteer.
Some expectations include attending meetings and functions, having all members of a family sign on to working with the puppy and covering food costs for the dog. The organization covers all medical expenses, Decker said.
Prospective volunteers at some point also receive a home visit by group leaders to ensure a proper and safe space for the dog.
Decker emphasizes that this volunteer work can be especially beneficial to high school students. Both her children who graduated from Enumclaw High School helped to raise puppies for their senior projects and for community service. "The kids got a lot of money for scholarships because of the community service projects," she said. "It made it really nice for the parents."
The meeting takes place at Midtown Grill (20609 State Route 410) in Bonney Lake from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
For more information about the meeting, call 253-862-3767. To learn more about Guide Dogs for the Blind, visit www.guidedogs.com.