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Guiding Puppies Toward a Life of Service

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Guiding Puppies Toward a Life of Service
“You’re proud of them and know they’re going to eventually go off to a good home where they’re giving someone the freedom to be independent."
CJ Manthe

CJ Manthe and her husband Denny Sauer are volunteer puppy raisers.

While that does sound like the best volunteer job ever, it does come with a huge responsibility. These puppies go on to work with people with visual disabilities, providing them with the support they need to live their lives more independently.

Lakeshore is the fifth puppy Manthe and Sauer have raised for Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB), which is based in San Rafael, Calif. They do this while balancing busy lives. Manthe, who has served as the director of the Nevada Department of Business and Industry and administrator for the Nevada Housing Division, now sits on the Public Utilities Commission. Sauer recently retired from software consulting. In addition to raising Lakeshore, they are active hikers, bikers and general outdoor enthusiasts.

Born for This

Guide Dogs for the Blind has a professional breeding department that selects dogs for their temperament, intelligence and health. These tend to be Labradors, Golden Retrievers and crosses between the two. Manthe says the breeders look for specific traits in the mothers and fathers so the puppies are more likely to be confident, calm, focused and not easily distracted.

Lakeshore is 75 percent golden retriever and 25 percent lab. At four months old, she can already follow hand commands for sitting, laying down and standing. She has learned to settle down and be quiet in restaurants, hospitals and other public settings, as well as to walk with a loose leash and greet people calmly when she is invited to.

Raising Puppies

The GDB program places 8- to 12-week old puppies with volunteer puppy raisers around the Western United States. The volunteers are responsible for teaching required puppy skills, manners and socialization. This prepares the puppies to go in to more intensive technical training when they’re between 14 and 16 months old.

“We get them used to their environments, so they’re not distracted by all the sounds and smells,” Manthe says. “And we teach them basic commands like sit, lie down, go to bed and how to go the bathroom on command.”

Wait. What? They go to the bathroom on command? Manthe explains that these are working dogs and they need to be attentive to their future owner’s needs, which means taking care of their own business only when requested to do so.

Manthe estimates there are currently 30 dogs being raised in the Reno-Sparks area. “We have a pretty dynamic puppy raising club here,” she explains. “And we work together as a team to help each other when necessary.”

At any one time, there are approximately 2,000 puppy raisers and around 800 puppies being trained by volunteers throughout the western United States. “It’s nice knowing we’re just one of 2,000 puppy raising families,” Manthe says.

Manthe learned about the program when she served as the Chief Financial Officer for GDB from 2001 to 2003. She worked on the campus where the dogs are bred, trained in advanced guiding skills and then get to work together with their visually impaired partners. “I’d have lunch with the students and I got to see firsthand how GDB’s mission could impact someone’s life forever,” she says.

Manthe moved to Northern Nevada in 2003 to be closer to her family, but she never forgot how it felt being on the GDB campus. Volunteering for them is a way of keeping that experience alive. “I’ve always loved dogs and this way I can help in a way that matches my passion,” she says.

Guide Dog College

Once the GDB puppies are between 14 and 16 months old, they get recalled to GDB’s San Rafael or Oregon campuses to work with certified trainers. Manthe says losing them is hard, but she compares it to sending a child to college. “You’re proud of them and know they’re going to eventually go off to a good home where they’re giving someone the freedom to be independent,” she says.

For two to three months, dogs are taught by professional guide dog mobility instructors. GuideDogs.com shares the details of the program:

Our dogs are smart — very smart! In addition to learning how to lead a person safely around obstacles, guide dogs are also trained in "intelligent disobedience": if they are given an unsafe cue from their handler, they are taught to disobey it (for example: refusing to step out into the street when there is oncoming traffic). Guide dogs are also trained to have impeccable manners (for all those times they visit places of public accommodation, such as restaurants, grocery stores and public transportation), and are capable of avoiding distractions (such as cats!). In addition, all guide dogs possess an eagerness to please and a willingness to work. They choose their profession!

Once the dogs complete their training, they’re matched with a student who is visually impaired. The team spends two weeks together working through real world situations, to ensure they’re compatible. Once the dog is successfully matched and trained with its person, it gets to graduate with fellow guide dogs, puppy raisers and partners. Manthe says this is one of the best parts of the process, watching the babies they’ve raised celebrate their achievements.

“We just got to see one of the dogs we’d raised at her graduation and she was so happy and playful when she saw us,” she says. She says that, once trained, the dogs know that when the harness is on it is all business — they become serious about their work and focused on the team. When the harness comes off, however, it’s play time.

Guide dogs wear special harnesses to let them know when they’re on the clock, but also to let people around them know of their unique role. They go everywhere with their partners — work, school, restaurants, hiking trails and the grocery store. When they’re working, they shouldn’t be approached or petted, as they need to be focused on their human partners.

GDB says most guide dogs work until they’re around 8 to 10 years old, at which time they get to retire, sometimes staying with their human partners as pets, other times returning to the home where they were raised or being placed in an adoptive home.

How You Can Help

If you’re interested in becoming a volunteer puppy raiser, get more information here, and then complete an interest form. GDB will be in touch to let you know what opportunities might be available and if you’re a match. If you’d rather support them in a less time-intensive way, financial donations can be made online. You can also donate every time you buy something from smile.amazon.com by selecting GDB as your charity in the settings. Guide Dogs for the Blind is a non-profit public charity that receives no funding from the government and there is no cost to the clients who receive guide dogs.

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