Ten Halifax households recently received specially-bred puppies that will spend the first formative year of their lives getting ready for careers as guide dogs.

The Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) launched the program in 2017: they got volunteer puppy raisers throughout Toronto to socialize and obedience-train golden-retriever and Labrador puppies earmarked for guide dog service. This year, the program expanded to Winnipeg and Halifax.

“Our role as puppy raisers is to provide a safe and loving home for the puppies, from about the age of eight weeks to 12–15 months,” says Catherine Kieran, communications manager for CNIB in the Maritimes and a volunteer puppy raiser. “Our role is primarily socialization. Taking them everywhere that a guide dog would go.”

Kieran has nine-month-old golden retriever named Sherman, a fifth-generation guide dog from Australia. He’s been all over town: the movies, the hospital, shopping centres. He even joins Kieran in public washrooms.

The program lays the groundwork for more specialized training when the puppies graduate to advanced guide dog school. “They’re guiding [the dogs] through their first everything,” says Rob Cramer, a guide-dog instructor with the program in Ottawa. “When they come into training, they’ll be confident and adjusted to the world, so we can focus on teaching them the guiding rules.”

Puppy raisers must do specialized obedience training. They can’t pamper the pups, who even need to learn to go to the bathroom on command. Yuko Imai is raising five-month-old Rhonda. “I find myself watching that I don’t give her the wrong commands, like that it’s okay to jump on the bed, or it’s OK to have something off the counter,” she says.

The hardest part will be letting go once the pups grow up. “Puppy raisers are aware that this is not a pet that we’re going to keep around,” says Imai. “I’ll be sad, but on the other hand, she’ll be going on to do great work. It’s like sending your child off to university.”

Halifax resident Alycia Pottie, a student and new mom with vision impairment, will be among the first to receive one of these guide dogs. She appreciates the work of the puppy raisers, who help ensure people like her can lead an independent life. “It’s such a big sacrifice to make, but you can just tell they’re truly doing this from the goodness of their heart,” she says.

Kieran explains that the program works here because Halifax is a dog-friendly city. By law, businesses have to admit guide dogs; there’s no such rule for dogs in training. “We’re relying on the goodwill of businesses to allow us to bring the dogs on the premises, to train them there,” she says. “This city has embraced these puppies in such a big way.”

CNIB need volunteers to raise the next generation of guide dogs. See cnib.ca for more information.

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