With the holidays upon us, Guide Dogs of America is urging area residents to scratch an itch — the puppy itch, that is.
La Cañada Flintridge resident Lexie Dreyfuss heeded the call several years ago, and it’s been puppy love since.
Dreyfuss fell in love with GDA’s program while raising her first puppy as a freshman at LCHS. She is now raising her sixth puppy, named Jenny, a soft yellow lab and “sweet little girl with lots of energy,” Dreyfuss noted.
GDA is a nonprofit that provides guide dogs to blind and visually impaired people across the U.S. and Canada free of charge. It has several litters of puppies that will need to be placed with local foster families through December and early January.
GDA asks foster families to raise the 8-week-old puppy for 18 months, socializing and loving it as much as possible, and then return it to GDA headquarters in Sylmar, where the puppy will continue its education for six months to become a highly trained guide dog. If it successfully completes training and graduates, the dog 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 aim to place about 60 guide dogs per year.
Foster puppy owners often fall in love with puppy-raising, and repeat the experience, Colman said, but even so, GDA is looking to expand its pool of applicants and grow the program.
Dreyfuss, a La Cañada High School graduate and current psychology major at Loyola Marymount, is one such local “puppy raiser.”
Her puppies have always gone everywhere with her, including to class, crossing the stage at graduation, long road trips to Utah and to work at the La Cañada Flintridge Country Club, where she’s the aquatics director.
“I never imagined I would raise even two or three puppies, but it’s become a part of me, and it’s become such an important part of my life; I’ve made so many decisions just on the fact that I’m puppy raising,” said Dreyfuss, recalling that during her college visits, one school wouldn’t let her tour the campus with her GDA puppy.
“I didn’t even consider that school,” she noted.
Dreyfuss also has adopted back three of her GDA puppies, and cares for them with the help of her mom, Kellie, and dad, Lee. Sometimes, the dogs have to be “career-changed” if they develop medical issues, such as allergies and hip dysplasia.
As the puppy’s first handler, or raiser, Dreyfuss is given first dibs to adopt her dogs back if they don’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.
“I was sitting in class in high school when I got a call from GDA, and I just started crying — I lost it. I knew it wasn’t good,” Dreyfuss said, recalling that she knew her pup was being booted from the program. “I got there as fast as I could — I just wanted to hug her and kiss her and bring her home.”
There also is no shortage of potential adoptees for the dogs that don’t make it through the GDA program — there is a wait list of six years to adopt one of their highly trained animals.
“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.”
Puppies who are raised with foster families return to GDA’s Sylmar facility for six months of formal training, when they’ll learn crucial guide work sills, 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.
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.
Dreyfuss, who has attended now many graduations, said her whole life goal has been influenced by GDA, and getting to know the visually impaired partners of her foster puppies. She plans to do a master’s degree in orientation and mobility, and work as a guide dog mobility instructor. “It’s incredible. They change the lives of visually impaired people, giving them total independence.”
“That would be my dream job,” she said, noting that she still cries every time she has to take back her puppy for formal GDA training. “I have a picture of me with every single puppy and me walking it back to its kennel, and I’m just sobbing. But knowing the amazing purpose that every single puppy serves, how could I not do this?”
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.)
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.