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County residents care for puppies destined to be service dogs

Families, single people and couples open their homes to adorable balls of fur, ready to care for them and train them. They know that in a year's time those puppies will be grown, well-behaved dogs almost ready to begin new lives as service dogs for sight-impaired owners.

Officially, these volunteers are puppy-raisers for Guiding Eyes for the Blind. They agree to take in puppies to raise for up to 18 months and train them. There are rules to follow and weekly training sessions to attend.

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But make no mistake. The puppies wiggle their way into the hearts of their owners and stay there.

"You can't help it," said Nancy Long, of Lutherville. "I think you're a better raiser that way."

"It's a big commitment," said Gayle Fowler, of Monkton. "But extremely rewarding."

Holly Voelker, of Towson, has just welcomed her third pup, Fleming, into her home. "They're all very sweet," she said. "They all have their unique personalities."

And with that comes the typical stages of development: teething, potty training, the teenage years. "It's kind of like talking about your kids," said Voelker, mother to two teenagers and one college student.

Linda Steiner, of Sparks, has raised eight puppies, including Dash, taking them everywhere she goes. Dash became the mascot of Towson High school's cross country team. "He was General Dash," Steiner said.

About 8 to 12 puppies are in training locally at any one time, according to Celeste Rees, Guiding Eyes' regional manager and a puppy-raiser herself. Some 400 puppy-raisers are active nationwide.

From 8 to 10 weeks old when they arrived at their new homes, seven local pups are among the youngest puppies in the Baltimore region. Yellow or black Labrador retrievers, they attend weekly classes in the gym at Jemicy School in Owings Mills.

"They start out special," said Steiner, who serves as a region coordinator.

During these hourlong training sessions, both pups and puppy-raisers receive instruction. At a recent session, the puppies sat with their humans while Fowler and Rees walked around them with balls and other objects that would drive any dog crazy. When a dog looked but didn't move, it got a treat. All of the volunteers are armed with pouches of treats — just bits of regular dog food taken from their daily ration — to reward good behavior over and over during the class.

"It's more consistency than strictness," Long said.

But when playtime comes, it's clear these are puppies as they romp with one another.

"Most people say they couldn't give them back," Steiner said. But these volunteers always do.

Gayle Fowler speaks with pride of her puppy Kimberly, who now is a guide dog for a man in Delaware. Fowler attended their graduation from advanced training in January 2014 and seeing them together, she knew it had all been worth it.

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"You would have thought Kimberly had just cured cancer," she said. "I was so proud."

Helping others

Although Fowler has a soft spot in her heart for Kimberly, she always tried to remember that hers was a temp job.

"I went into it like a job, to do the best I can to make this puppy succeed," Fowler said. While she waits for the arrival of her new dog in June, she continues volunteering, helping at the weekly classes and puppy-sitting for other families.

Puppy-raisers are attracted to Guiding Eyes for a number of reasons, mostly as an opportunity to help someone else.

Fowler and her golden retriever D'fer had been involved in Chesapeake Search Dogs, taking part in search and rescues.

Then, she discovered Guiding Eyes.

"I felt like I have a blessed life," Fowler said, explaining her desire to give back to the community. "I felt I had time to give."

"It was a good time to do something different, something to help people," said Nancy Long.

An ad prompted Linda and Paul Cross, of Hampstead, to volunteer. Linda Cross, who spent 24 years teaching at Hereford Middle School, has raised nine dogs. The newest temporary member of their family is Iko.

"I couldn't do it without my husband," said the North County resident.

"You're the trainer, I'm the plaything," her husband quipped.

Voelker had always volunteered for her children's activities but now her children are more independent. When she saw a Guiding Eyes bumper sticker, she contacted the nonprofit.

"It's certainly an adjustment," she said.

Even for her cats. They, too, have had to adjust as two other dogs and now Fleming have barged into their space.

"You move everything over and say, 'We're in it again,'" Voelker said. "They just become part of your family."

Like family

Even if the puppies won't be with their first families for long, they quickly work their way into the family circle. Nancy Longs' 17 grandchildren and 15 grandchildren all know Kona. "They have plenty of interaction with Kona," she said.

And with the other three dogs the Longs have raised. Every time they've taken a dog to New York for its advanced training, they've come back with a new puppy. "We haven't taken a break," Nancy Long said, and added, "It doesn't replace that dog you left behind."

Anybody older than 14 may become a puppy-raiser, but it takes time and a special commitment. The puppies need lots of attention and very specific training to develop into the well-behaved, confident and patient dogs who will lead their sight-impaired owner, according to Rees.

"We set limits and have boundaries on how they behave," Rees said. As she describes training, "Encourage liberally and discourage sparingly."

Experience with dogs isn't even necessary. "We are able to teach [puppy-raisers] what we need to teach them," Rees said.

Guiding Eyes provides the first two weeks' supply of food and dog crates. Veterinarian bills are reimbursed.

"The largest expense is food and toys," she said, adding that puppies should have 8 to 15 toys so they learn what is theirs — and what isn't.

These future guide dogs have to stay off furniture — even if it's OK for the family dog. Puppies have to sleep in their crate. They can't jump and they have to have the confidence to lead but the patience to wait, according to Rees. Outside, they must be in a fenced yard or on a leash.

Puppy-raisers are expected to spend a lot of time with their dogs, making sure they aren't in their crates for more than three hours. Some enlist other family members to take the puppy out at mid-day. Some even take them to work, according to Rees.

Guiding Eyes for the Blind is one of a number of service dog organizations. Founded in 1954, Guiding Eyes, which is based in Yorktown Heights, in upstate New York, provides guide dogs to people with vision loss and service dogs to children with autism in a program called Heeling Autism.

Not all puppies make the cut — but they end up serving the community in other ways. Some have gone on to police work, others have been assigned to the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms or Drug Enforcement Administration as bomb- or drug-sniffing dogs. Occasionally, and rarely, a few end up being well-behaved family pets. Puppy-raisers have the first right to adopt their dog if it isn't suited to service work, according to Steiner.

Linda and Paul Cross have raised puppies that didn't become Guiding Eyes dogs — or as Paul Cross put it, "chose another profession." Dozer is a member of the Connecticut State Police and Claude will graduate in June as a member of ATF.

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Cross proudly boasts of Dozer's accomplishments. He was part of a team that uncovered a minivan full of cocaine. His owner send the couple a picture of the dog with a pile of money.

"When you see the end results, you know it's all worthwhile," he said. "And you know they're going to have a good life."

Find out more

For more information about volunteering to raise a puppy for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, or other volunteer opportunities, call 866-GEB-LABS. Or go to http://www.guidingeyes.org/volunteer/puppy-raising/.

For information about obtaining a guide dog for someone with vision loss or a service dog for a child with autism, go to http://www.guidingeyes.org/prospective-students/

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