Kathy Saunders 2015-10-14 19:20:51
My daughter asked her father and me if she could raise a puppy, as its first steps toward becoming a guide dog for the blind. This was to be Julia’s eighth-grade project, required of every student at her school in Florida. So we picked up Sarah, a 16-weekold, black Labrador retriever, the same time our son, Joey, was headed off to college. For the first month, we called Sarah the “New Joey.” Yes, Joey was a typical boy— hardly a model of cleanliness and grooming. But he didn’t shed hair. Or leave puppy poop in the backyard. Or try to swallow whole a live lizard. Southeastern Guide Dogs, which is amply supported by Lions, matched our family with Sarah in the summer of 2012. I’m not sure what we were thinking when we agreed to Julia’s plea. I’m 54 now, a food writer for the Tampa Bay Times and a neat freak. I don’t go to bed at night with dishes in the sink. I wipe any lingering streaks, however faint, from the kitchen counters after an initial swipe. If Joe, my husband, happens to get up from the dinner table, he’ll quickly warn me, “Don’t clear my plate—I’m just refilling my drink.” It’s not as if we didn’t have an experience or two with critters at home. We hosted Piglet and Oscar, two guinea pigs, for the summer when Joey was in grade school. We’ve flushed plenty of goldfish after their demise. We even rescued a miniature poodle and had her as our pet—but Brandy did not shed. Before receiving Sarah, we spent the summer attending classes with the West Pinellas Puppy Raisers to learn how to handle a future guide dog. After passing a home visit and background check, we drove to the Southeastern campus in Palmetto about 15 minutes away. Sarah was waiting in the arms of a kennel worker. We snapped on a pink and lime green designer leash from Lily Pulitzer and signed paperwork agreeing to return her to the kennel when she was recalled for formal training. We had no idea at that time how hard that would be. On the car ride home, Sarah sat in the well of the front passenger seat, nudging up against Julia’s legs. She looked at us in fear, and we looked back with the same trepidation. We didn’t know a thing about raising a puppy. We had a crate ready next to Julia’s bed, according to Southeastern’s guidelines, and we stocked a box with permitted toys. The first weeks went smoothly, but little puppies, after bouts of frenetic activity, sleep a lot. And like other newborns, it’s important to rest or nap when they do. So Julia and I spent time sitting and napping on the floor, as Southeastern puppies are not permitted on furniture. Sarah was a spunky girl who loved food and any yard debris that she could get away with ingesting. We became comfortable reaching into her mouth to retrieve sticks, rocks and a variety of leaves. When she captured a lizard, I had to pry her mouth open to get it out. My obsession with cleanliness meant a new round of duties. We spent our days vacuuming black hair and picking up puppy poop in the yard. The extra work was fine. The more we fell in love with Sarah, the more we didn’t seem to care about the chaos I had dreaded. We even got used to wiping the huge puddle of drool she left while waiting patiently for us to give the command to eat. The 240 or so puppy raisers for Southeastern have a Facebook page for sharing their triumphs and tribulations. Through social media, Julia contacted the raisers of Sarah’s six litter mates, scattered around the state of Florida. On their first birthday, all but two of the Abigail/Sparky pups gathered at our home for a party. Without leashes or capes, it was difficult to tell them apart, except for Porter, the only yellow Lab in the litter. Julia arranged frequent play dates with sisters Tangerine and Zelda and brothers Hiram and Porter. Laslo and Melvin lived in South Florida, but Laslo made it up for one visit. I was back to having birthday parties for kids. These were just furry ones. Julia also took Sarah with her once a week to classes at her school. I dropped both of them off in the carpool line every Thursday morning and picked them up after school. Sarah knew that when she was wearing her blue “Guide Dog Puppy in Training” cape she was supposed to be on her best behavior. During the school day, Sarah sat quietly under Julia’s desk, until she would fall asleep and start snoring. Julia taught her classmates how to interact with Sarah and to leave her alone when she was “working.” She often participated in physical education classes, running laps on the track or walking beside Julia between workout machines in the gym. Sarah went to dozens of Julia’s softball games, racing along the fence line when Julia was up to bat. She also liked baseball games. We have season tickets just behind the dugout of the Tampa Bay Rays. All of the ushers in our section knew Sarah and enjoyed seeing us walk her from the top of the stadium down the long stairway to our seats at Tropicana Field. We would often joke that she was there for the umpires. Like all of the Southeastern puppies, Sarah left us for two weeks during the year to attend “puppy camp” in the home of another raiser. It’s meant to expose the puppies to different environments and different handlers. Sarah went to the home of Rick and Kerry Kriseman in the middle of Rick’s campaign for mayor of St. Petersburg. Sarah was featured with the Krisemans and their two children in all of the campaign television ads. We still say she was a key factor in his election victory. That July, when Sarah was 15 months old, we got a letter saying she was to report to the freshman dorm at Guide Dog University on Aug. 31, 2013. Although we were heartbroken, Sarah seemed ready. We could tell she was getting bored. She barked more, she whined a bit and she never seemed to get tired. We went early for her “In For Training Day” to take a picture of the whole litter. Then, with “Gonna Fly Now,” the theme from the Rocky movie, playing in the background, Sarah and her litter mates were called up individually to be escorted to the kennel by a trainer. They all went willingly, excited to play with the other dogs in the assessment center. For 11 months afterward, we received monthly reports about Sarah’s progress, along with a few photos from the kennel. We stalked the Southeastern Twitter feed for photos of her as well. As her siblings were being matched with students from the school, Sarah remained in the kennel. Trainers told us she was “soft,” and likely wouldn’t be a guide for a handler who lived in a big city. Yet they said she still had the qualities to be a guide. We sent dog cookies to the kennel for her second birthday. Finally, in July 2014, Sarah was matched with Dottie Langham, a blind woman from a rural area in northern Georgia. After the pair trained together for a month, we were invited to Puppy Raiser Day to meet Dottie and see Sarah again for the first time since we had returned her to school. We watched from afar as they worked as a team and then introduced ourselves to Dottie and asked permission to greet her dog. Sarah was jumping two feet off the ground with excitement. She was so happy to see us. We got puppy kisses and puppy hugs, along with lots of slobber. But within in a few minutes, Sarah was back at Dottie’s feet, keeping close to her side—at her service. We left campus that day feeling a huge weight had been lifted off our shoulders. We couldn’t be sad when we saw how much Dottie loved and needed Sarah. We had experienced the mission firsthand. After a 90-day waiting period, Dottie was able to contact us. We have stayed in touch and enjoyed sharing stories of Sarah and her antics. Dottie and Sarah visited us to participate in a walkathon for Southeastern Guide Dogs. Sarah loved being back in her first home and running in the yard, but she remained within Dottie’s reach. We recently visited Dottie’s home in Georgia, and received the same excited welcome from Sarah. She proudly showed off her new home and her toys. Currently, we are raising a yellow Labrador retriever named Hannah. She’s our fifth puppy from Southeastern. One is in training and two others were “career-changed” for food allergies and fears developed in the kennel. I am now the area coordinator for our puppy raiser group, providing guidance, advice and support to 15 families currently raising dogs. Giving up each puppy is still as hard as it was the day we said goodbye to Sarah. But because of Dottie and Sarah, we know when we send our dogs off to training, we have to go straight to the puppy kennel and pick up another. As for my home, it’s now headquarters for the West Pinellas Puppy Raiser group. We have chaotic meetings with all of the puppies running inside and outside of the house, often after they have splashed in the pool. I host Puppy Kindergarten in my family room for the newly matched dogs under the age of 6 months. My housekeeping goals are still high, but my priorities have shifted. I’d rather raise super hero puppies than have a super clean house.
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
This page can be found at http://digital.lionmagazine.org/article/Puppy+Love/2296485/276720/article.html.