When her black Lab puppy turns 18 months old, Sheri Cross will give her up.
Cross doesn’t have anything against the dog, named Jessa, whom she describes as “fantastic.” But she’s raising Jessa to become a guide dog for a blind or visually impaired person.
“I like raising the puppies and paying them forward,” said Cross, who lives in Colonie.
Cross volunteers for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a Yorktown Heights-based guide dog school that is looking for people to raise guide dog puppies in the Capital Region. The nonprofit organization has about 400 volunteer puppy raisers from Maine to North Carolina, and has matched 7,300 guide dogs since 1954.
“We’d never be able to do what we do without our puppy raisers,” said Michelle Brier, director of marketing and communications for Guiding Eyes.
People interested in becoming puppy raisers must attend several pre-placement classes, where they learn what the work entails, and host a puppy for three nights to see whether they really want to take on the responsibility of raising a guide dog. Those who decide to become puppy raisers receive an 8-week-old puppy, which they bring to regular classes with the other guide dog puppies.
“Puppy classes are always a challenge,” Cross said. “They want to play.”
Anyone can become a guide dog puppy raiser, said Barbara Paquette, a Colonie resident who coordinates the Guiding Eyes puppy raisers in the Capital Region.
“We’ve got a diverse group of raisers,” she said. “I’ve got teenage kids, I’ve got older adults.”
Paquette has raised six guide dog puppies.
“I’ve always had a love for dogs, and I love to see a dog fulfill its potential,” Paquette said. “These dogs want to work and they want to learn.”
Puppy raisers are expected to teach their dogs basic obedience and “socialize the puppies to everything the world has to offer,” Brier said. The idea is to expose the dogs to a wide variety of situations and distractions when they’re young, so that as adults they’re less excitable when faced with new places, people and things, she said.
“It’s important for guide dogs to be able to stay focused on their work,” Brier said. “Puppy raisers take them to soccer games, to train stations — they expose them to all sorts of different stimuli.”
Paquette said the puppies can be taken just about anywhere, but that there must always be a clear exit, in case they grow uncomfortable. When one raiser asked whether she could bring her puppy to her son’s marching band parade, Paquette said she could, as long as she was willing to leave if the puppy became stressed.
About 95 percent of guide dog puppies are Labrador retrievers. The rest are golden retrievers, golden/Labrador retriever mixes and German shepherds. Raisers receive free veterinary care for the dogs.
Sixty percent of Guiding Eyes’ raisers are repeat raisers.
Jessa is Cross’ second guide puppy. Her first puppy, Baxter, is guiding a woman in Jamaica, a neighborhood in Queens.
Cross said she brings Jessa “just about everywhere.” The dog wears a tag that identifies her as a guide puppy, and Cross will ask for permission to bring her into public places such as supermarkets. She and the other raisers also engage in puppy swaps, where they trade puppies in order to expose them to different distractions and environments.
Cross said she first learned about Guiding Eyes when she took a family dog, who has since died, for training at PetSmart.
She later saw an ad for puppy raisers on Craigslist, and decided to respond. “I thought it might be a perfect fit for our family,” said Cross, who has three children, ages 16, 18 and 24.
Altamont resident Diana Traegler is on her fourth guide dog puppy, a Labrador retriever named Cobey who is almost 6 months old.
“He’s a sharp little guy,” Traegler said. “He gets bored easily. He wants to be in motion.”
Traegler said she became interested in the puppy-raising program as a young woman, when she worked near the Northeastern Association of the Blind in downtown Albany. But she didn’t take on a dog until 2008, after she read an article about Guiding Eyes in a local newspaper.
“Because I’m retired, I can devote a tremendous amount of time to a puppy,” said Traegler, 68.
Traegler said that it’s difficult to give up the puppies, but that she understands that the dogs have important work to do. “We love the dogs and think the world of them, but we know they’re going to be the eyes of another human being,” she said.
At around 18 months, the dogs return to Guiding Eyes for evaluation. If they pass, they enter the organization’s formal guide dog training, which lasts about five months. Some of the dogs become breed dogs, while dogs who aren’t suited for guide work might become service dogs for children on the autism spectrum, and some might become family pets.
Many raisers attend a graduation ceremony for their guide dog, where they get to see their dog interact with his or her new handler.
“There are a lot of tears of happiness,” Paquette said.
Paquette is no longer raising a guide puppy. One of her original puppies, who is now 13, retired from service after his owner moved into a nursing home, and moved back in with her.
Brier said that the need for puppy raisers will only increase as the baby boomer generation ages. “Blindness will rise substantially,” she said. “Age-related macular degeneration will become more prevalent.”
In the Capital Region, the next orientation series for puppy raisers will take place in January.
Those who are interested should email Paquette at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about the Guiding Eyes’ puppy-raising program, call 1-866-GEB-LABS or visit guidingeyes.org/volunteer/puppy-raising.