Southern California

Raised in SoCal, Changing the World: What Goes Into Training a Guide Dog Puppy

Guide Dogs are paired with blind and visually impaired clients across the USA and Canada, but all puppies are raised locally in Sylmar

Walk into the puppy nursery at Guide Dogs of America at your own risk, you may get buried under a mountain of chubby little fluffy puppies.

Walk past the nursery, deeper within the 7-acre campus in Sylmar, and you'll find Greg Steinmetz in his office -- but he's never alone.

"One of the great things about having a guide dog, is there's a social component to it," said Steinmetz, the manager of admissions at Guide Dogs of America.

He also uses a guide dog.

"People love dogs and they'll see a well behaved working dog and they come up and want to ask about the guide dog," he said. "Very few people have ever asked me about my white cane."

Guide Dogs of America was founded in 1948. The organization has provided over 3,000 dogs to the blind and visually impaired. 

The puppies are born on-campus in the San Fernando Valley nursery. At 7 weeks old, they move to the puppy kennels. Here, they will spend a week in the 'puppy head start program' before being placed with puppy-raisers. 

Puppy-raisers are volunteers, based in Southern California, who essentially foster and socialize the future guide dogs for the first year of their lives. 

"In order to have a real solid dog that gets turned in they have to have experienced all sorts of things," said Diana Jenke, a puppy-raiser seven times over. "And, if they were raised in a kennel the whole time, they wouldn't be able to have those experiences."

She believes that without this essential socializing, the dogs wouldn't be well equipped to be matched with a client. 

When the dogs are 12 to 18 months old, they will leave the homes of their puppy-raisers and return to the campus is Sylmar, where they will live and train intensely until they are matched with a person in need. 

"Usually, it's about 4 to 6 months," said Jamie Hunt, the assistant director of programs. "But just because they are finished training doesn't mean they are done. They could potentially be here for another year."

This is so the right match is found. For example, a more confident dog could be placed into a busy city like New York for example, or a more docile dog may be better with an elderly person.

Not all dogs graduate the program, however.

"Guide dogs are like the astronauts of the service dog worlds," said Stephanie Colman, the puppy program coordinator. "So, it's not the right career for every dog."

A dog that fails to graduate this training has many options, including going back to its puppy raisers, becoming a service dog for another need like autism or a PTSD support dog for a veteran autism. Or, become a police dog. 

"Some of our more high-energy dogs have gone on to work with law enforcement and now have great careers as narcotics detection dogs." said  Colman.

She doesn't call it failure, but rather a "career change" for the dogs. 

The dogs who do successfully graduate from training are then matched with a suitable human in need. When a match is found, the human client is flown to the campus where they will live with the guide dog in a dorm room on the property for three weeks as they train together. 

"Before I got a guide dog, I didn't like being in crowds, it was overwhelming" said Steinmetz. "And, with a guide dog, Wiki will take me in and out of traffic."

Steinmetz's dog, Wiki, is trained to help him weave through people and help him find doors and elevators when they are in a crowded place.

Guide Dogs of America serve blind and visually impaired clients throughout the United States and Canada, but all of their puppies are raised locally.

"It's really important that Southern California families join us in this mission to help improve the lives of people who are blind and visually impaired," said Colman. 

Guide Dogs of America is expecting a new litter of puppies this September, and they are actively seeking volunteer puppy-raisers. You can find more information here

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