Paisley, a 10-month-old golden retriever, lays waiting patiently at the side of her master, area resident Dorothy Langum, who’s seated in a local shop enjoying a coffee drink. Paisley isn’t fazed as customers go in and out, walking by her designated spot on the floor.
Langum is a “puppy raiser” for Guide Dogs for the Blind and is preparing Paisley, a “puppy in training,” to be a “good canine citizen.” The process includes socializing Paisley and teaching her not to be distracted at life’s commonalities as well as introducing her to new experiences.
“One of the hardest parts is keeping people from coming up to pet her,” said Langum, who has prepared 15 other puppies over the years. “I have to teach her also not to solicit the attention. I know how hard it is to resist wanting to pet someone as cute as her.”
Paisley obediently rises up as Langum instructs her to now sit at her side. The bright-eyed pup wears a leash around her snout for guidance and a noticeable green jacket identifying her as a Puppy in Training for Guide Dogs for the Blind. By law, service dogs and ones in training are allowed in all areas that are open to the public.
“I’ve had my puppies at some very nice restaurants,” said Langum. “The staffs there have always been accommodating and are very good about it.”
As Langum leaves her seat, Paisley diligently stays put, watching and waiting. A guide dog is trained to stand, sit or lie quietly in public places when not being led.
Guide Dogs for the Blind uses golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers as guides due to the breeds’ temperament and intelligence levels. German shepherds were also utilized in the past. The puppies used are born at Guide Dog for the Blind kennels and, at around two months old, are placed in homes of volunteer puppy raisers such as Langum for their initial training.
Langum and her daughters, Tina and Lizzi, have been training the service dogs-to-be since 1995. She said that Guide Dogs for the Blind has only been using adult raisers for the past 20 years. Prior to that, organizations like the 4-H Club, which her daughters were involved with, were the types of groups doing the training and socialization of the pups. Langum estimated that now the ratio between adult and youth raisers is even with over 900 puppy raisers across the United States.
Names for the dogs are chosen by the letter of the litter; the nine puppies from Paisley’s litter all have names starting with “P.” Names are usually one or two-syllable names and are unique, avoiding confusion should a friend or family member have the same name.
Puppies in training are with the raiser until they are 14- to 18-months-old.
“As a puppy raiser our responsibility is to teach the basic commands and prepare them for their next step,” said Langum. “The dogs then go on to the Guide Dogs for the Blind campus for five months of training to become a guide dog.”
Langum said the commands she teaches Paisley are the basic “sit,” “stay,” and “come” directions as well as “do your business.” The dogs are taught they can only relieve themselves when told or directed and can only do so when on a leash.
The dogs are given play time but the toys are chosen very carefully. Chew toys are selected so that the dog won’t confuse the toy with similar household items. No ropes or leather items are allowed with Nylabones or hard rubber chew toys used instead. Though the dogs are Labradors or golden retrievers with natural retrieving instincts, no tennis balls are allowed or games of fetch are played.
“We have to break the dog of some of its natural breed characteristics,” Langum explained. “You don’t want a working dog to chase after something with a blind person holding the leash.”
The dogs can play supervised tug-of-war, which reinforces interaction. They are also taught that during playtime that when an item is requested they have to immediately give the toy back.
One of the biggest challenges for puppies like Paisley to overcome is distractions and becoming startled at strange noises. Langum said the key is teaching the dog to recognize the noise will not harm them.
“Teaching the dog to watch what’s making the noise gives them confidence,” said Langum.
She’s had children at parks assist her with the training, at times riding a skateboard past the puppy or bouncing a basketball by them as they walked.
“Ninety percent of the training is repetitive,” Langum said. “We have to do things with them over and over.”
Returning a puppy after having it in one’s home can be a very emotional task, the trainer admitted. Langum said she takes solace knowing she is helping someone that will not only have a working assistant but a loving companion. She tries to time the return of the trained and socialized puppy within weeks, or in some cases immediately, of receiving a new one to repeat the process all over again.
After returning the puppy for its next phase of five-month training to become a service dog, or as Langum calls it, “Doggie College,” she is invited to the graduation ceremony where the dog is presented to a sight-impaired individual. The person receiving the newly graduated guide was matched to the dog’s personality.
“I’ve noticed they do a good job in matches between the person and the dog,” Langum said. “It’s a bittersweet moment seeing the puppy again but I take pride in knowing they’re going on to help someone out.”