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‘Puppy raisers’ help in guide dogs’ training

The Andalusia Kiwanis Club is used to having guests at their weekly meetings. They’re not exactly used to having guests walk in on all fours.

The club’s special guest Monday was Brego, a golden retriever-Labrador mix, who was joined by Barry and Karen Gruver of Panama City, Fla. The Gruvers volunteer as “puppy raisers” for the Southeastern Guide Dogs school of Palmetto, Fla., near Bradenton.

Puppy raisers provide the first step of training for the animals that will eventually serve as a guide dog for the visually impaired. They take in the dog when it is about 9-12 weeks old and continue to house and train it for about 14-20 months. At the end of that time, the dog is returned to the training school in Palmetto, where it completes another four to six months of training.

“You are helping blind people, and this is a necessary part of what takes two to three years, in order for them to get to have a guide dog,” Karen Gruver said. “Puppy raisers potty train the dog, teach it basic commands and do a lot of work to benefit the school.”

Gruver explained that puppy raisers’ dogs are not the same as full-fledged guide dogs. For example, restaurants are not legally required to let the dog into an establishment. Also, because they are still puppies, they are not always as consistently well-behaved.

“If you see a dog out with one of the blue (Southeastern Guide Dogs) scarves or shirts, be understanding,” she said.

Brego is currently 14 months old and weighs 78 pounds. The Gruvers are required to attend a training session every two weeks, usually in Dothan. The school takes care of Brego’s veterinary costs, but the Gruvers pay for all feedings, groomings and flea treatments or other small veterinary procedures.

However, because Southeastern Guide Dogs is a 501(c)(3) organization, all of the Gruvers’ expenses for Brego are tax deductible.

“It’s important to always be firm and to be consistent,” Gruver said about the training process. “If the dog has to do something every time in a certain situation, then you need to make sure that he does it every time in that particular situation.”

Gruver said her job as a “puppy raiser” is to first teach the dog obedience, and the school will then teach the dog the proper times to disobey — such as refusing to enter a busy street when the guide dog’s owner requests the dog move forward.

Gruver said Southeastern Guide Dogs also allows other ways for citizens to volunteer as part of the effort to raise guide dogs. Some people help as breeders, while others simply go to the school and regularly hug or walk the dogs.

“It’s important for these dogs to get used to people and social settings,” she said.

All of Southeastern Guide Dogs’ animals are provided to visually-impaired citizens free of charge. The school specially unites disabled veterans with guide dogs through its “Paws for Patriots” program.

Southeastern Guide Dogs is accredited by the International Guide Dog Federation in the U.K., and is a member of the U.S. Council of Dog Guide Schools. The school uses six breeds for its dogs: Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, golden retriever-Lab mix, smooth-coat collies, Australian shepherds and Hungarian vizslas (which do not cause allergies in people normally allergic to dogs).

More information about Southeastern Guide Dogs can be found online at www.guidedogs.org.