Guide Dogs of America needs volunteer foster families to take in puppies

- Following an unexpected dry spell, Guide Dogs of America's puppy nursery in Sylmar is filled with puppies, prompting it to put out a call  for volunteer foster families to help raise and train the animals to be companions to blind and visually impaired clients.

After nearly five months of being empty, the nursery at Guide Dogs of America is currently housing three litters totaling two dozen puppies, with several more litters expected in the coming months, according to Stephanie Colman, GDA's puppy department coordinator.

"Fertility can be tricky,'' Colman said. ``When we have a long dry spell, it puts the program at risk 20 months from now, because we're suddenly low on dogs to train as guides, and then we can't meet client demand. Our goal is to evenly plan litters throughout the year, but sometimes Mother Nature has her own ideas. We're thrilled to be finally hearing the pitter patter of puppy paws once again.''

Volunteers are key to the operation, she said.

"We rely exclusively on volunteer foster families to raise and train our puppies. We literally can't function without them,'' Colman said.

"September is National Guide Dog Month, and a wonderful time to explore becoming a puppy raiser. Puppy raising with GDA is the perfect opportunity to embark on a life-changing journey right in your own backyard.''

The multi-step application process takes about four weeks to complete. Prospective foster families fill out a detailed application, attend a local puppy raiser meeting and orientation session, and schedule an in-home visit with a GDA representative.

Once approved, GDA matches individual applicants with an 8-week-old puppy, taking into account the volunteer's lifestyle and experience level. All types of applicants are considered, including families, single people, homeowners and apartment dwellers. Households with well-mannered resident pets are welcome to apply.

"The right match is important,'' said GDA's Carol Ann Heinis. ``A `shy' puppy might be overwhelmed in a super-active household, just as a super- confident, `busy' puppy might overwhelm a first-time puppy raiser.''

The puppy raiser's job, according to the GDA, ``is to provide a loving first home, teach basic obedience and proper house manners -- to stay off furniture, not to jump on counters, not to chew inappropriate items in the home, etc. They also provide ongoing urban socialization, carefully exposing the dogs to a wide variety of public settings and teaching them to be calm and confident in all situations.''

Volunteers raise the puppies for about 15 months, returning them to the GDA's Sylmar campus at 16 to 18 months of age. Formal guide dog training by GDA staff then takes four to six months. Once the dog completes training, GDA matches the animal with a blind or visually impaired client. If the dog does not successfully complete formal training, the puppy-raising family can welcome the dog back into their home as a family pet.

"People often say they'd love to raise a puppy but they can't imagine having to give it back,'' Colman said. ``I encourage people to think of it as giving the dog forward -- via the gift of independence, confidence and mobility that will change someone's life.''

Program requirements include monthly puppy raiser meetings, weekly puppy kindergarten classes during the dog's first five months with the foster family, and monthly kennel acclimation visits. GDA covers all medical expenses; puppy raisers pay for food, toys and flea and tick medication. Those out-of-pocket expenses are tax-deductible, according to GDA.

Prospective applicants can learn more online at www.guidedogsofamerica.org and by attending upcoming information sessions on Sept. 22 at 10:30 a.m. and Oct. 27 at 9:30 a.m. For more information, call (818) 833-6447.

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