Becky Dan gets a lot of attention these days. She's followed morning and night. Whether she's working at the office, standing in a grocery store line or eating lunch at a café, her every move is scruntinized by curious eyes . . . eyes belonging to Charlie—a young black Labrador Retriever. And as a guide dog in training, Charlie gets to accompany his foster mom everywhere she goes.
In 2001, Dan was searching for a volunteer opportunity in order to help animals. Her search led to Southeastern Guide Dogs (SGD), a nonprofit organization established in Florida in 1982. She learned that the organization—who provides guide dogs free-of-charge to the visually impaired throughout the U.S. and Canada—relies on "puppy raisers" to foster pups until they are ready for guide dog school. "At the time, they didn't have volunteers in Tennessee, so I joined the Atlanta, Georgia, group," says Dan.
"I got my first puppy, Paco, in November 2001. He now works as a guide dog for a woman in Jacksonville, Florida." She has since become the organization's Area Coordinator for Middle Tennessee, and has fostered Toby, who is now a guide dog in St. Louis, and Oakley, a yellow lab who is currently completing her advanced training. Charlie, her newest pooch pal, still has a lot to learn but catches on quickly.
As a puppy raiser, Dan's goal is to care for them and to socialize them in preparation for advanced training. "My job is to teach the pup basic obedience," she explains. "How to behave in public, not to be afraid of loud noises, how to ignore distractions . . . things that they will encounter when they become a working guide dog."
Dan says that Stites & Harbison, the law firm where she works, has been very supportive and allows her pups to come to work with her each day. "The dogs become part of the work environment," she says. "It has become so normal for us that we don't even think about it, but we'll have clients come in and say, 'Whoa- there's a dog under your desk.' We stop and say, 'Oh, yeah- there is.'" She says that bringing Charlie to work is great training since he gets exposed to downtown traffic, crowds, elevators and more.
"When we go out in public, the pup wears a blue vest that identifies him as a guide dog in training," Dan explains. "I also carry an ID card." She adds that, for the most part, she and Charlie have received a warm reception wherever they go. "Everyone stops to talk to us," she says.
Dan adds that Southeastern Guide Dogs is always in need of new puppy raisers—especially in the Nashville area. However, keep in mind that while it's a fun job, it's also a lot of work. "Before someone signs up for the task, they need to ask themselves if they can really put in the time and effort required—and if they will be able to give the pup back when it comes time for him to go into advanced training." After all, puppy raisers become easily attached to their pups, and it can be emotional and difficult to let them go after such an intense bonding experience. Focusing on the greater goal, says Dan, helps to get you through that tough period. "“You are given the opportunity to really help someone in need. You're given the chance to see a gifted puppy become a working guide dog. The rewards are numerous."
So how do you become a puppy raiser? After contacting Southeastern Guide Dogs) either via their website or by phone), you"ll need to fill out an application and attend two meetings with the Middle Tennessee group that Dan heads up. After that, if you're still sure you want to become a puppy raiser, Dan conducts an in-home visit and interview. From there, she says, "it's all late night potty walks!"
For more information on Southeastern Guide Dogs and on becoming a puppy raiser, please call (800) 944-DOGS or visit their website at www.GuideDogs.org.