‘Pups With a Purpose’ Need Holiday Foster Homes

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Photo by Dan Vang / OUTLOOK Pasadena resident Gwen Whitson and her foster puppy, Serenity, have been a team since the yellow Labrador was just 7 weeks old. She’ll return Serenity to the Guide Dogs of America when she’s full-grown and ready to begin her guide dog training at the GDA’s Sylmar facility.
Photo by Dan Vang / OUTLOOK
Pasadena resident Gwen Whitson and her foster puppy, Serenity, have been a team since the
yellow Labrador was just 7 weeks old. She’ll return Serenity to the Guide Dogs of America when she’s full-grown and ready to begin her guide dog training at the GDA’s Sylmar facility.

With the holidays around the corner, Guide Dogs of America is urging Pasadena area residents to scratch an itch — the puppy itch, that is.
The nonprofit, which provides guide dogs to blind and visually impaired people across the U.S. and Canada free of charge, has several litters of puppies that will need to be placed with foster families through December and early January.
Foster families will raise the 8-week-old puppy for 18 months, socializing it as much as possible, and then return it to the Guide Dogs of America headquarters in Sylmar, where it will continue its education for six months to become a highly trained guide dog. At the end of its graduation, it will be placed with its new owner.
“If you ever dreamt of a puppy for Christmas, now is your chance to realize that dream while doing something meaningful for another person,” said Stephanie Colman, GDA’s puppy program coordinator, noting that they hope to place 60 guide dogs this year.
Fostering puppy owner and Pasadena resident Gwen Whitson said she highly recommends the experience.
Whitson adopted her yellow Labrador, Serenity, last December, and has since been on a running, nonstop puppy-training marathon. In her short life, Serenity has visited the Hollywood Bowl, a Dodgers game, Sunday church and countless other places. With a constant wagging tail and urge to smooch whatever her snout sniffs, Serenity’s silky blond coat and calm amber eyes have filled the puppy void in the Whitsons’ lives.
“I feel very attached; she’s with me all day, every day except when she goes to the kennel [in Sylmar] — all the hustle and bustle is very good for her,” Whitson said. “It’s a wonderful organization, and the work the dogs do with sight-impaired clients is remarkable. While I’m having fun with a puppy, there’s the notion that she’ll grow up and help someone else, and that’s a good feeling.”
For the Whitsons, it made sense to foster a puppy instead of adopting full time. Whitson’s older pet had passed away two years before, and she and her husband, Bob, had been missing that family “best friend” for some time. But with Bob set to retire next year, after which they hope to travel extensively, owning a high-energy, young dog really wasn’t going to work in the long-term.
Whitson, however, had already retired, and knew she would have more than a year to dedicate to a puppy. She’ll give Serenity back to be formally trained in March or April.
“I will miss her a lot and it will be hard to give her up, but I know it’s for a good cause … they tell you it’s a little like sending your child off to college,” she said.
After receiving all the love and socialization possible, Serenity will return to GDA’s Sylmar facility for six months of formal training, when she’ll learn crucial guide work skills, such as directional control, obstacle avoidance and traffic safety. Once a dog successfully completes the training, it will be matched with a blind or visually impaired partner. GDA makes about 60 successful partners per year.
After being paired, the partners spend 21 days living on the GDA campus to learn how to work together, and the new handlers are taught how to care for their highly trained dogs. The teams then celebrate their new partnership and independence in a graduation ceremony attended by family, friends and members of the community.
Whitson has been to a few ceremonies to see the process in action.
“The tough part is giving her back, but we’ve known going in what we signed up for,” she said, noting that the dogs who graduate really seem to love what they’re doing. “When they see the harness come out it’s really interesting to watch them snap to attention — it’s like they’re off to the races. They love it. And it’s so rewarding to see the great matches that are made.”
As the puppy’s first handler, or raiser, Whitson also will be given first dibs when Serenity retires, or if for some reason she doesn’t make it through the program. Only about 42% of the dogs complete “graduation.” Those who don’t graduate often go on to become other kinds of therapy or service dogs.
“We like to think of guide dogs as the astronauts of the dog world,” Colman said. “It’s really a very specific type of work that takes a very specific temperament. The dog needs to be good at the job and he needs to enjoy it … the dogs have to want it, as silly as that may sound. It takes a very specific dog that can fulfill that work day in and day out.”
While no real dog-training experience is required, there are a few guidelines potential puppy foster parents need to fulfill. They must live in Southern California and attend weekly puppy classes, monthly meetings and special events. They must also bring the puppy to the Sylmar campus for necessary veterinary care. Puppies cannot be left home alone for long periods of time; raisers who work outside of the home must have permission to bring the puppy to work (GDA carries liability insurance that protects both raisers and employers.) Raiser homes with children and other well-behaved pets are welcomed.
Prospective foster parents must attend a local puppy-raiser’s meeting where they can meet fellow raisers, schedule an in-home interview with GDA staff and attend an orientation session before receiving a puppy.
For more information about becoming a volunteer puppy raiser with Guide Dogs of America, visit guidedogsofamerica.org, or call (818) 362-5834.

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