Suzanne Woods Fisher had the house, the kids, the big backyard. Just one thing was missing.

But when Suzanne’s 8 year old son begged his father for a dog, his father replied, “Find a purpose for having a dog, son, and then we’ll talk.”

“My husband isn’t against dogs,” Suzanne explained recently. “He’s neutral about them, he wasn’t raised with them.”  Her husband thought that he had successfully ended the discussion, but he was in for a surprise. That same week, their son brought home a field trip permission slip to visit Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, CA. Suzanne immediately signed the slip and offered to chaperone. It wasn’t long before Suzanne and her family were signed up as Volunteer Puppy Raisers.

Reyna at 6 months, in her Guide Dog Puppy vest. 2009.

Puppy Raisers raise future Guide Dogs from the time the pups are 8 weeks old until they are 16-18 months old. During these months, the puppies learn basic manners and obedience, and are socialized to be comfortable in a wide variety of situations such as grocery stores, travel, restaurants, and workplaces. The puppies have vests similar to Guide Dog harnesses. “When the jacket goes on, they are working. When the jacket comes off, they are just dogs,” explained Suzanne. “There’s an etiquette to handling a dog in training. A lot of people can’t resist [petting the dog] – it’s always a good thing to ask ‘may I touch your dog?’. Sometimes the dog is too excitable and just needs to be working right then.” At times people are surprised by the places the puppies-in-training go to. “People ask ‘why would a blind person take a dog to a movie?’” Suzanne commented, “but blind people do all kinds of things – visit the symphony, go to a concert. It’s all part of conditioning the dogs.”

After the year of puppy raising, the dogs return to the Guide Dogs for the Blind facility to learn the specific skills they need to be professional Guide Dogs. The dogs that pass each phase of training are then paired with a visually impaired person. Each person and dog are carefully matched, and spend a month training together to become a true team. The Puppy Raisers receive regular progress reports throughout training and have the honor of formally presenting their graduating Guide Dog to its new owner at a ceremony.

“Its not an easy moment,” Suzanne admitted. She laughingly calls her family the “Schmaltz family” at graduations. But she compares it to dropping your kid off at Harvard: “so sad he’s leaving home but so darn proud of him.”

Suzanne and her family are now on their seventh puppy, Reyna. “There’s this hope and excitement, the possibility,” Suzanne described receiving each new puppy-in-training. Their first dog was a yellow Lab male named Arbor. Arbor was teamed with Jonathan, a 19-year old man who has Bardet-Biedel, a genetic disease that results in progressive blindness. From Jonathan, Suzanne learned how quickly having a Guide Dog can change the life of someone with visual impairment. “I received an e-mail from Jonathan’s mother the next day [after graduation]…  she wrote, ‘Jonathan took Arbor on a walk to see his friend, and I realized something. He hadn’t felt the confidence to walk to his friend’s house in years.’ When I read that,” Suzanne said, “loss became gain. It’s such a feeling, I’ve never forgotten it.” She remains in touch with Jonathan and is continually amazed at how much he and Arbor accomplish: “Those two have done more than most sighted people ever do. They’ve hiked the Oregon Trail all of the way [from Kansas] to the Pacific Ocean. Jonathan has taken Arbor deep sea fishing off the Florida Keys… The people we meet who are visually impaired and get a dog – they are the most amazing people. They really want a life, they want independence… every person I’ve met, I’m just amazed at what they can accomplish in their life with a great limitation of blindness.”

Guide Dogs for the Blind has improved the lives of thousands of visually impaired Americans like Jonathan since the organization was incorporated in May 1942 by Lois Merrihew and Don Donaldson. Merrihew and Donaldson began training Guide Dogs in response to WWII; they hoped to help the many wounded servicemen who were returning home without their sight.  Co-founder Lois Merrihew also has the distinction of being the first female licensed dog trainer in America, and being a part of the passing of Senate Bill #2391 which set standards for licensing of dog trainers and schools. Guide Dogs for the Blind celebrated their 10,000th group graduation in 2002.

Some members of the Contra County Guide Dog Raiser’s Club. 2008.

In addition to Puppy Raising, Suzanne has contributed to Guide Dogs for the Blind through volunteering with the newborn puppies, housing a breeder dog, and even offering her skills as a writer. Suzanne, a published author with numerous awards to her name, has donated all royalties from her recent book For the Love of Dogs to the organization. “It’s been a pleasure and an enriching experience – this is nine years now, and I just feel all the more committed to the organization,” Suzanne said. “I think the deeper you go, the more you find so many different parts of it. I’m so grateful to the people who are part of it. So many are volunteers [like I am].” She compares volunteering with Guide Dogs for the Blind to eating “a potato chip – you get started and you just want to do it again and again.”

Suzanne volunteering with newborn puppies, 2003.

There are a number of ways to volunteer with puppies from Guide Dogs for the Blind. Some volunteers co-raise; others take “starter puppies” for five months. Yet others volunteer as regular dog-sitters for their local Puppy Raising Clubs. Dog-sitting is a great way to “get a little taste of what it’s all about, get your feet wet,” Suzanne recommended. “It’s good to let it grow naturally and make sure it’s the right fit for you.”

“So many people make this organization successful,” Suzanne commented. “It really is a lovely part of humanity.” She’s found that Puppy Raising has helped her family grow, as well. “It’s brought us closer. We’re more tolerant, and more educated about visually impaired people… people who want a guide dog are so amazing, they are having this full life without the benefit of eyesight and it’s so inspiring.” She has also seen her children grow a greater “awareness of giving to other people with your spare time and energy.”

Of course, Suzanne laughs, another benefit to raising puppies is that “you just can’t take life too seriously when a puppy is charging through your house with a pair of someone’s underpants in her mouth.”

Click here to find a local Guide Dog Raising organization.

Oriole in her Guide Dog puppy vest. 2008.

For more information on Guide Dogs for the Blind:

For more information on Suzanne Woods Fisher:

To check out Suzanne Woods Fisher’s book For the Love of Dogs on Amazon, click here. All proceeds go to Guide Dogs for the Blind.

All photos used courtesy Suzanne Woods Fisher.

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