Puppies in Training

Hometown Heroes, People
on November 19, 2006
Michael Good

When Otto, a cream-colored Labrador retriever, saw Judi From after a nine-month absence, his whole body quivered with excitement. With his tail thumping wildly, the lab danced around From as she warmly petted him—and then tearfully told him goodbye.

During this typical “graduation” ceremony for Guide Dogs for the Blind, emotions flowed freely as puppy raisers, including From, said their heartfelt farewells to dogs that once were part of their families.

In its 64 years, Guide Dogs for the Blind, based in San Rafael, Calif., has placed more than 10,000 dogs with blind owners. But before that can happen, more than 1,000 volunteer puppy raisers in eight Western states take 8-week-old pups into their homes for a year of basic training. Then the dogs are returned to San Rafael for four to five months of intensive guide-dog instruction before they are paired with blind owners for more training, and eventual graduation.

From, 62, of Poulsbo, Wash. (pop. 6,813), and her husband Dick, 60, have raised 14 puppies over the last decade. After handing over Otto, the Froms received another puppy to raise the same day. Recently they worked with Othello, another Labrador retriever.

“It’s a roller coaster of emotions when you drop one puppy off and immediately pick up another one,” From says. “There is obviously some pain in giving away a dog you’ve become attached to.”
Still, the Froms treasure the rewards of the puppy-rearing program. “I have seen people’s lives change when they get these dogs,” she says. “It’s amazing what they can do.”

For instance, Otto’s new owner, Ed Reyes, 59, travels frequently as president of the Missouri Regional Group for the Blinded Veterans Association. He relies on Otto’s guidance to board planes and navigate new cities. “Otto lets me move six to eight times faster than I could with just my cane,” says Reyes, a Vietnam War veteran from Kansas City, Mo., who lost his vision 10 years ago to a degenerative condition. “I just put my trust in him and off we go.”

Tami Gerenon credits Nicks, another Lab raised by the Froms, with increasing her mobility and confidence to travel, and keeping her safe. Gerenon, 38, of Vancouver, British Columbia, who has been blind since birth, didn’t get a guide dog until she collided with a car backing out of a driveway. Now Nicks is her constant companion.

“Nicks lets me know if there is a car coming I don’t hear,” Gerenon says.

Reyes and Gerenon received their dogs for free and all training expenses were paid for by Guide Dogs for the Blind, which provides financial support for both raisers and graduates.

“We are in touch with our graduates throughout the life of their dog,” says Joanne Ritter, 53, the organization’s director of marketing and communications.

When she takes on a new puppy, From meets twice a month with a local puppy-raising club for training support. Sporting green capes labeled “Guide Dogs for the Blind,” the pups are taken on outings to accustom them to new surroundings, such as restaurants, malls and street traffic. Each month, From sends a report to help the organization evaluate the puppy’s suitability for guide dog work, since only 50 percent of the pups pass the program’s stringent requirements. Dogs that don’t make the grade may be deemed better suited as search and rescue dogs, dogs to assist the hearing-impaired or loyal pets. Six of From’s dogs have become guide dogs.

“I always told people I would raise guide dogs,” says From, who grew up close to the Guide Dogs center. “But I never knew how until I found out about this program at a dog show.

“I love working with dogs,” she adds, “and this feels like I am really making a contribution.”