Story and photos by JJ Kaplan
Everyone that has brought home a puppy has those wonderful memories of their wiggly bundle of pure joy arriving home. You remember receiving those wet puppy kisses. You remember those house training hassles. But most importantly, you remember making that wonderful, almost instantaneous, connection with the puppy that lasts forever. Now can you imagine having raised the puppy to the age of 15 months and then having to say goodbye? That is exactly what happens to those that volunteer to raise puppies to become a Leader Dog for the Blind.
Zionsville resident Dr. Becky Porter is now training her 14th Leader Dog. Dr. Porter, who has a PhD in Neuroscience, is the Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Services and a faculty member in Physical Therapy at IUPUI. Quite naturally, her story begins with a family that loved dogs.
Her family always had a pup or two in the home. When Dr. Porter was a young girl, she trained her dog to pick up his toys. Not toys generally but to pick up the specific toy that she requested. She loved working with and training this little guy, and it seemed to come rather naturally to her.
While in middle school, Elizabeth, one of Dr. Porter’s children, volunteered the family dog to be part of a 4-H drill team, complete with music and precision movements. While their family dog was performing at the Indiana State Fair, the family noticed a booth promoting the Leader Dog for the Blind program. After a year of consideration, the family took the plunge and decided to participate in the program to raise the puppies.
Dr. Porter is one of 10 who raise puppies in Central Indiana. Her current puppy, Ben, is a 9-month-old Yellow Lab. She takes him everywhere in order to expose him to the real world of distractions and dangers.
When training, Ben wears a Leader Dog vest and understands that the vest means “work.” We have all seen service dogs in training, and I know we are all tempted to pet the dog and talk to the trainer. However, these dogs are learning that their only job is to assist their person. There is no fun and frolic when the dog is in working mode. These dogs may eventually save a person’s life and need to understand their job in order to help the owner. At home, the puppies get to play and romp while still learning to be well-behaved house dogs.
At birth, puppies are exposed to selective experiences, such as massages in the webspace of their paws and exercises to stimulate brain development. By seven weeks, they have learned the command “sit” when waiting for food and attention. This is just the beginning.
At this point, the puppies are placed with a puppy raiser who can request certain breeds
and genders if they wish. The little puppies are too small to wear a training vest, so they receive a training bandana that denotes that they are a Leader Dog in training. Eventually they grow large enough to receive a vest.
The training continues using regular dog food as a reward, combined with positive reinforcement. As Dr. Porter explains, “Dogs are not allowed to eat human food as this may encourage the dog to eat from the table, in restaurants, in buffet lines, etc. It simply is not allowed, and the dog learns to leave human food alone.”
House training is also an important lesson that the puppy raiser must teach with a particular methodology. The puppy raiser has unlimited patience and support to help the puppy learn the ropes of house training. Eventually, the puppy learns the command “park” to teach it to potty outside. And now Ben urinates on command.
It is important for a puppy raiser to understand that this is not your dog, and that is has a mission in its life, explains Dr. Porter. ”Everything that you do will impact its success, and you want it to have a well-mannered life. You must teach the puppy to have manners that will be acceptable to anyone. So no sitting on furniture, no stealing food from the table, no jumping up on people. This dog will have impeccable manners when he is matched with his forever home.”
At 12-15 months of age, the puppies go back to headquarters for a final evaluation and health check, and then a career path is determined. Leader Dogs must not be aggressive, must deal with all types of people and be low-key. If dogs are more energetic, they may have a career change to become an explosive or drug sniffing dog, a tracking dog used for search and rescue or may even go back to the puppy raiser as a family pet.
When a puppy is determined to be a Leader Dog candidate, it goes through the Leader Dog for the Blind program to train the dog how to work in the harness and act as a guide. The person that will receive the dog spends a month at Leader Dog School to learn about working with and caring for a dog guide. Once matched, the new owner and Leader Dog spend a month of training entirely free of charge to learn to work together. Money is not a barrier to someone who needs a Leader Dog. This is a service based on need for a dog guide and funded by Lions Clubs, private donors and corporations.
While Becky and countless others donate their time to the training of these Leader Dogs, there is considerable expense in breeding operations, and the month of housing and training for the new owners and their dog during the training camp. Total cost of training of just one of these unique dogs is between $40,000 and $50,000.
Lions Clubs from across the country have been a major sponsor of the Leader Dog for the Blind. It takes a great deal of corporate sponsorship to fund the entire process. To honor a donor, a puppy may receive a special name, and the sponsor receives updates and pictures of the puppy they are supporting.
Thanks to Dr. Porter and others like her, people’s lives are enhanced and changed forever. As she describes it, “The sadness of saying goodbye to a dog is far overshadowed by wonderful stories of how dogs have made a difference in someone else’s life.” She understands the intrinsic reward of doing something for others. While the puppy’s mission in life is to serve, she realizes that we are all born to serve in one capacity or another. She has found hers and embraces it.
For more information about Leader Dogs for the Blind, visit leaderdog.org