Diane Lyon never goes anywhere alone. Whether she’s at the grocery store, the hair salon or a restaurant, her guide dog puppy in training follows closely at her heels.
Lyon, a resident of Greely, is a “puppy walker” for Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind. She’s responsible for raising her puppy, Tesla, until she’s ready to enter the world as a certified service dog for someone in need.
“It is such a rewarding thing,” Lyon said of raising a pup. “You’re raising a dog that will someday be helping someone, who will be a lifeline for that person.”
Lyon has been a volunteer with the Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind puppy walker program since 2013. She’s already raised one pup, Ollie, who is currently undergoing his final guide dog training – and is currently working with two more: Georgia, who is 17 months old, and Tesla, who is five months old.
Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind typically has between 60 and 80 puppies in training at any given time, said Steven Doucette, events and guider co-ordinator with the organization. Puppies needs to be paired with a volunteer puppy walker for the first 12 to 18 months of their life; puppy walkers are responsible for raising them, socializing them and helping to train them for their future careers.
Doucette said Canadian Guide Dogs is always in need of more volunteers for the job, and they are currently looking for people in the Ottawa and Eastern Ontario area who might be interested.
A DAY IN THE LIFE
Lyon wakes up around 7:30 a.m. every day to let Tesla out of her crate, where she spent the night sleeping. She takes the puppy out for a bathroom break and then prepares breakfast for Tesla, Georgia and her personal dog Phoenix.
On Tuesdays, Lyon and Tesla drive to Manotick to attend a one-hour training class from 11 a.m. to noon. There, Lyon works with Tesla under the supervision of one of Canadian Guide Dogs’ certified trainers on basic commands such as sit, stay and leave it. Classes are once a week for six-week intervals, running for the duration of the time the pup is in the walker’s care.
From there, life is business as usual. Puppy walkers are expected to incorporate their pup into all aspects of their daily lives, to help prepare them for life as a service dog later on.
Depending on the day, Lyon might head to the grocery store, go to the salon or spend a few hours at the mall. Tesla joins her at all of those places, wearing her training jacket all the while. Tesla even joins Lyon for girls’ night, when Lyon meets up with her girlfriends for dinner on Thursdays.
“She comes with me everywhere,” Lyon said. “She goes in the car, on elevators – wherever I need to go.”
One requirement that Canadian Guide Dogs asks of their puppy walkers is that they be with the dog at all times. Ideally, pups in training are only left alone for two or three hours at a time, Doucette said. This helps prepare them for life as a service dog when they’ll be at their handler’s side day and night.
Since Lyon has two future guide dogs in her care – Tesla and older pup Georgia – she alternates between the two when she leaves the house while her husband watches the other pup at home. Doucette said such a case is rare, though, and only happens when one pup is almost ready to leave the puppy walker’s care.
Lyon is an ideal candidate for the puppy walker program, Doucette said, because she’s an active retiree who loves dogs. She’s able to spend all of her time with a pup at her side.
WHAT IT TAKES
Doucette said people from all walks of life can be ideal candidates for the puppy walker program.
Puppy walkers are required to be with the pup at all times, whether this is at home or at work with permission from their employer. Volunteers also need to be able to attend regular training classes and have a vehicle for getting to and from vet appointments.
Doucette said that retirees are perfect for the program, but they’ve also had puppy walkers who have worked from home, people who work part time, post-secondary students and even families whose schedules allowed an adult home at all times.
In fact, Doucette said the program is a great opportunity for families or students to have a sort of trial run with a dog: the commitment is only 12 to 18 months, and all expenses are covered by Canadian Guide Dogs.
Canadian Guide Dogs covers the cost of food, toys, supplies and vet bills for all of their puppies. Volunteers are asked to donate only their time, Doucette said.
As an experienced puppy walker, Lyon said there are a few other things to consider though. Giving up a puppy you’ve raised for 18 months is not easy, she said, but it helps to remember that the dog is going on to help change the life of someone in need.
“You also have to love to talk to people,” Lyon joked. Having an adorable guide dog in training at your side is a great conversation starter, and Lyon said she is regularly stopped by strangers who have questions or who simply want to pet Tesla.
Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind regularly raises Labradors and Golden Retrievers as their guide dogs, but also uses German Shepherds and sometimes Standard Poodles as well.
Lyon said the application process for becoming a dog walker is relatively simple. After filling out an application, a Guide Dogs representative visits the candidate’s home to ensure it is a good environment for a puppy and to meet any permanent pets. If the candidate is a good fit for the program, they are assigned a supervisor who will oversee their time with their pup. Then, all that’s left to do is wait for a litter of puppies who are looking to be homed.
Interested volunteers can contact Canadian Guide Dogs at firstname.lastname@example.org or 613-692-7777 for more information on becoming a puppy walker.
“We’re always looking for volunteers,” Doucette said. “If you think it’s something you’d like to do, give us a call.”
Additionally, Canadian Guide Dogs is hosting an open house on Thursday, July 28 between 12 and 3 p.m. This is an opportunity to see the facility, meet working guide dogs and pups in training and watch a training demonstration. Admission is free, but Doucette said donations are appreciated. Pet dogs are not permitted at the event.
For more information on Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind, visit www.guidedogs.ca.