Raising puppies for a cause

            I am so fortunate. My job as a dog photographer takes me many places and I get to meet amazing people. I think the most fantastic folks are the puppy raisers for the Guide Dogs for the Blind. These selfless people bring a pup into their home at 8 to 10 weeks old, love them, train them, socialize them and then give them back. The organization couldn’t exist without these families. I don’t know how they do it.

            Every year, I photograph the big day, when an 18-month-old dog graduates to take the next step in its journey – they return to the guide dog campus to learn how to help a sightless person. It’s also the day the puppy raisers get their new pup. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting about a dozen of these noble people.

            Mary Jo Egus and her family have been raising puppies for 19 years. They have brought 19 puppies into their home, raised them and have seen them all go on to be the lifeline for a blind person.

            “It’s a wonderful feeling to see someone go from hopeless to a new life opening up for them,” Egus said. “I am grateful to be able to be a part of it all. There’s been Spaulding, Lewis, Captain, Finney and our latest, Lana.”

            She remembers every dog fondly and without sadness, only joy. That’s the most amazing part to me. I’d want to keep them all. It takes a very special kind of person to be a puppy raiser. Egus is definitely that.

            So what does it take to be a guide dog puppy raiser? Rebecca Hornick, guide dog placement coordinator explained, “When our pups are 8 to 9 weeks old, they’re ready for their first road trip. They say goodbye to their birthplace and embark on the first leg of their journey toward becoming guide dogs. They are loaded up in our puppy truck, which is specially designed with their safety and comfort in mind. The truck makes dozens of trips throughout the year and is driven by our own staff ‘puppy stork,’ who delivers the special cargo to the arms of eagerly waiting volunteer puppy raisers.”

            Once in the comfort of their new homes, Hornick continued, the puppies begin to learn about their environment. “They learn basic obedience and good manners and are socialized to the world. In addition to learning good house behaviors, the pups are exposed to a variety of situations, places and people,” she said, adding, “They accompany their raisers just about everywhere.”

            The puppies are socialized at grocery stores, school campuses and workplaces, restaurants, shops and malls, and personal and public transportation vehicles, such as airplanes and trains.

            “Our puppies have the pleasure of living with their raiser families for 14 to 18 months before returning to our school for formal training to become guides,” Hornick said.

            I’ve also met many of the recipients that the dogs go on to live with and make their lives better. The most memorable is Morgan Watkins. For many years, Watkins has served on the board of directors, been an active volunteer and public speaker for Guide Dogs for the Blind. He is now the acting CEO.

            “I learned that I would lose my vision at the age of 11 and hung up my car keys in 1978,” Watkins said. “I’ve been able to enjoy walking with ease and confidence again thanks to my wonderful guide Fantom. From the first moment we met, he captured my heart and we’ve been best friends ever since.”

            Fantom has since retired but continues to live with Watkins. “Giving up Fantom as my guide did not mean losing my new vision because [Guide Dogs for the Blind] would help me forge a partnership with another very special dog. And so, on a day that will be etched forever in my memory, I received a bouncing, happy and very bright golden retriever named Will,” Fantom said.

            “When we were first introduced, this dear pup, calm and gentle by nature, let his own excitement show. I sat on the floor and he threw himself into my lap, lavishing me with instant affection. I put Will into his new harness and we took off. He was so smooth, so careful, so attentive,” he said.

            I got to meet Will and Watkins. They are quite a team. I know that even though it must be extremely difficult to raise a puppy only to give him away, meeting the new owner makes it worth it. Watkins sums up the feeling better than I ever could. “The greatest hymns sung in the largest cathedrals only approximate the music felt within when my guide dog Will and I began to fly.”

            Thank you Mary Jo and every person like you, who give so selflessly to make the blind see again.