The first puppy Tawna Crispin raised for a guide-dog program through her high school 4-H club wouldn’t be the last. Now a mother of five, the Everett dog lover is bringing up her 32nd guide-dog-trained puppy. She serves as club leader for the Snohomish County chapter of Guide Dogs for the Blind, a group founded in 1942 that provides service dogs to blind and low-vision clients free of charge.
Crispin has 13-year-old twins and a 3-year-old (as well as two kids who are already out of the house). All the high traffic and loud noise of a big, bustling family life has been solid training for the canine members.
“It's great for the kids and great for the puppy,” says Crispin. “We say that all the pups who come from our house are super-solid and super-confident, because there's so much noise and chaos and things going on in my house.”
That’s the idea. To become reliable guides, the puppies will need to be able to adapt to lots of new situations and be friendly to all kinds of animals and people.
“It is rewarding every day,” says Crispin. “And I like that it gives us an opportunity to volunteer and give back every day as a way of life.”
Just like with kids, raising a puppy for a life of service takes a village. And everyone chips in, “even the 3-year-old,” says Crispin. Her middle-school daughter recently brought the pup to school for a while, which was a great experience for the dog and the other students, who gained exposure to an ongoing community service project.
Crispin and her family are responsible for producing a happy, social, well-rounded, unflappable puppy with all the basic dog commands down pat. Once Crispin is confident a dog is ready, it goes to concerts, restaurants and movies — everywhere the family goes.
Families commit to raising the puppies until they’re about 15 to 17 months old. After that, official Guide Dogs for the Blind trainers take over, providing much more specialized preparation for the pups’ futures as service dogs serving in the U.S. and Canada.
The puppy raisers are invited to see their former pups graduate at the campus in Boring, Oregon, where they learn everything they’ll need to know to be full-fledged service dogs. Once a dog finds a permanent home, the trainers are invited to keep in contact with the its new owner and even get weekly updates on their progress. Guide Dogs for the Blind estimates that in Washington, 150 puppies are currently being raised for the program. There are other opportunities to contribute to the program, such as volunteering to help out at puppy club meetings, which happen about four times a month.
The new pups (usually Labs, golden retrievers or a mix) arrive by truck for puppy raisers in the Puget Sound area when they’re eight to 10 weeks old. Sometimes, people get a new puppy to train right after they send a fully socialized dog on “to college” at the campus in Boring.
If, by the end of their stay with the family, the dogs aren’t temperamentally suited to join the Guide Dogs for the Blind program, they move on to another track. “All the puppies get to decide their own careers,” says Crispin. Making allowances for a dog’s different personalities and talents means becoming a working dog in another field, a therapy dog or a household pet. For instance, a dog that was recently retired as a guide for the blind is now in training to assist diabetics.
Though Crispin maintains a relationship with her pups’ new owners, the experience of parting is always bittersweet for a puppy raiser. “It isn’t easy, you know, I'm not going to sugarcoat it,” she says. “It’s like sending your kids off to college!
“But it pales in comparison to the pride that you feel when you see them helping someone with a visual impairment, when you go to graduation and you are able to be a part of that process — and the pride overwhelms any sort of sadness you might have.”
Camille Jassny, a local artist with low vision, lives and works with her Guide Dogs for the Blind dog, Egan. “Having Egan with me to help navigate my busy lifestyle and my crowded Capitol Hill neighborhood has given me the freedom and agency to be more independent in my work and social life,” says Jassny. “I am so grateful for all of the time, hours, and resources that went into raising and training these guide dogs.”
Woof! That’s beautiful.
And more on pets and the people who love them: Does your family have what it takes to raise a guide dog puppy? | Not sure you're ready for a pet? Try one out! Here's how |