Saturday, December 13, 2008

Raising Puppies - Lifting Lives

Fidos for Freedom is a Laurel non-profit institution that trains hearing dogs, service dogs and therapy dogs for people who are physically challenged, deaf or hard-of-hearing.

My wife Joanne has volunteered as a puppy raiser for Fidos for the last 12 years. Joanne is better known to Laurel Connection readers as, "She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed."

Denise Portis recently finished a wonderful article about Joanne and the puppy raising program for Fidos' newsletter. Denise has given me permission to post her article in it's entirety below. Denise is a fine writer and also a Fidos client. She writes about her hearing loss and her service dog Chloe on her blog Hearing Elmo.

A 2009 Fidos for Freedom calendar makes a great Christmas gift and your tax deductible donation helps this wonderful Oldtown Laurel neighbor. Check their website for details.

I'm extremely proud of Joanne's vocation as a puppy raiser. Now you understand how she had the patience keep me around all of these 25 years. At least I started out as almost house trained.

The Imprint of a Puppy Raiser
By Denise Portis (reprinted with permission)

Joanne with current puppy, Champ

The special assistance dogs at Fidos For Freedom all began their training in the same place – the loving home of a Puppy Raiser. The Puppy Raiser provides a home and basic training for a new puppy, while attending weekly classes at the Fidos Training Center. “The pups ALWAYS remember their Puppy Raiser,” says Pat Jarvis, Director of Training. The Puppy Raiser’s imprint is permanent, having helped to shape the character and development of the assistance dog.

Joanne Wilson is a long-time Puppy Raiser at Fidos For Freedom. She began volunteering after meeting two other volunteers at her place of employment – the USDA in Beltsville. She is currently raising Champ, her eighth puppy for the Assistance Dog Program, and has been raising puppies for the organization for twelve years.

Joanne made sure that her children, then ages six and nine, understood that the puppy did not belong to them. She involved them in teaching and loving the puppy with the goal of then giving it to someone who would need the dog to live a more full and independent life. “The trained dog is a gift that we give … the kids understood that logic,” Joanne shared.

Many people wonder how a Puppy Raiser can “give the puppy back” after investing their lives in one for so long. It’s simple really – these special volunteers love people as much as they do puppies. The reward is in seeing a puppy they raised eventually completing their training with one of the training staff, and then being matched with a client in need of an assistance dog. “I have so much pride in every team of which I have had a part,” explained Joanne. “I have shed more tears of joy over what ‘my dog’ has done for a client, than tears of sadness when they have moved on in their training.”

Erin Saywell, Trainer and Puppy Coordinator, sees the mutual rewards between Puppy Raiser and puppy. Erin works closely with the Puppy Raiser during weekly training sessions, helping the volunteer learn to expose the puppy to various sights, sounds and different populations. The puppies are nurtured and loved in a warm home environment, learning good household manners and how to eliminate on command. “Joanne has been a great role-model for new Puppy Raisers,” said Erin, “letting them know the ‘ups and downs’ of raising an Assistance Dog puppy.”

Joanne has learned that although basic puppy raising is the same, different breeds and traits at times create some unique complications. “We had a Field Labrador puppy that needed to play ball on a daily basis. She worked better if she played first,” admitted Joanne. A Smooth-Coated Collie puppy she raised was very smart, but had trouble with fetching. “The trainers at Fidos are always available, and helped me a lot with that,” confides Joanne. “The trainers have knowledge and experience that they share. They make puppy raising easy for me, and I appreciate them tremendously.”

Joanne and fellow Puppy Raisers are surprised at how much these puppies want to work. When they are training a puppy in the house and do not ask it to do tasks, sometimes the puppy becomes bored and performs tasks on its own. Joanne remembers, “I trained a Labrador named Remi. When she was bored she would bring me things; a shoe, a toy, anything to get my attention and praise. Even when I didn’t need my jacket tugged off, or my shoes ‘fetched,’ I asked her to do it because she enjoyed it!”

Although the Puppy Raiser has unique insight into the puppy they are raising, they are sometimes surprised at the role the dog may play in the life of a client one day. “The trainers see things that I don’t see,” Joanne recalls. “Lily, the last puppy I raised, had good skills and was relatively large. I assumed she’d be a Service Dog. But she spent one week with Pat Jarvis, and it was discovered that she had terrific hearing skills.” Lily is now matched with a client who will use her for her fine hearing alerts.
The puppies at Fidos mature and thrive in the loving homes of their Puppy Raiser. The special bond created between volunteer and puppy is never erased. Pat was very excited to re-acquaint Joanne with the very first puppy she raised for the organization at the 10th Annual Stroll ‘n Roll in November. Higgins, a twelve-year-old black Labrador Retriever, now lives with Leah Miller in Calvert County. “Joanne and Higgins had a great reunion … there was no doubt that they remembered each other,” shared Pat. The bond was still there, and Higgins knew Joanne right away.

A permanent handprint is left on the hearts of the puppies because of the commitment of their Puppy Raiser. Also, each volunteer will tell you that the puppies leave permanent paw prints on their hearts as well. What’s not to love about a puppy? The Puppy Raisers will tell you it is more “fun” than it is “work.” It becomes an automatic process to work with the puppies daily to review their skills, cementing what they have learned. However, when they see the puppy do something as if it was second nature, they begin to understand the lasting effect of their training. Joanne will never forget a special moment with Chase, her second puppy.

“We were at Fidos one Wednesday evening, and a client asked if my puppy could pick up her cane that had fallen to the floor. When the puppy did, I was so surprised and overcome with emotion. The dog was merely doing what it had learned to do.” Joanne marvels at what the puppies seem to understand and what is expected. “The dogs really come into their own after they are placed and living with their clients. I’ve heard story after story of dogs doing things for which they were never specifically trained. Somehow these dogs learn what their clients need them to do.”

Puppy Raisers do not “go it alone.” A sponsor provides the funds needed to supply the puppy with food, veterinary care, toys, equipment, bedding, etc. The trainers provide direction, advice and encouragement in weekly training sessions, as well as responding to individual concerns as they arise. The puppy provides an avenue in which one can invest themselves in the life of another. Puppy kisses, wagging tails and unconditional love are a great additional “perk”! Joanne believes that being a Puppy Raiser is surprisingly easy. “These dogs are like gems. The trainers and I just polish them. These dogs are made to SHINE.”

If you would like more information about being a Puppy Raiser, please e-mail Erin Saywell at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

wow, what a great public service! thank you for taking the time and the energy to give back Joann