SEQUIM — Whether at the theater, on the streets, or in the grocery store, it’s likely you’ve crossed paths with Puppy Pilots volunteers.
For more than 10 years, the small group of dedicated volunteers continues to train dogs to help those in need through Guide Dogs for the Blind.
Following the vision of former Guide Dogs employee Michele Cawley, about 25 locals met at the first informational meeting in Port Angeles in June 2007, looking to start a program on the North Olympic Peninsula.
That eventually became Puppy Pilots, coined after charter member Deb Cox, a licensed pilot.
Cox has continued the program with as many as 12 volunteers at a time, ranging from sitters watching a dog for a day or two to raisers such as Kim Rosales and her family.
Now the organization is reaching out again to generate interest with an informational meeting at 3 p.m. Saturday in the Sequim Library, 630 N. Sequim Ave.
In 10 plus years, Puppy Pilots volunteers have raised 30 puppies, with nine of those becoming guides for blind individuals.
Cox said the rest were career-changed with one becoming a K-9 buddy (for blind children), three trained in other service dog jobs, seven trained as therapy dogs (six still live in the area) and the rest are pets.
Success rates in guide dogs to become guides is about 50 percent, Cox said, with a majority of those who don’t make it because of temperament or medical reasons.
Raisers receive puppies of 8-10 weeks old who are bred in California through the program. From there, raisers keep dogs up to 16 months before Guide Dog officials further train them in Boring, Ore., in a four-month, eight-phase program that tests the dog’s awareness to more complicated environments and circumstances.
Once completed, dogs and a blind partner are matched and live on-site for about two weeks of further training.
Out and about
Puppy Pilots volunteers take dogs to an array of everyday places, such as the dentist’s office. Cox said staffers at Irwin Dental Center in Port Angeles have opened the office a few times for dogs to acclimate to noises such as various dental instruments.
Part of the training includes teaching each dog not to seek attention when a new person arrives or during a new experience, volunteers said.
Throughout the years, residents have gotten better about asking to pet first before just doing it, volunteers said.
“If you see a dog wearing a [green] jacket then it’s working,” Cox said.
Volunteers are currently training three dogs, with two going to the Oregon facility soon and another two puppies coming here in the next two months.
The top question volunteers are asked about dog raising, they said, is, “How do you give them up?”
“It’s never easy, but I remind myself why I’m raising the puppy,” Cox said. “I’m raising it for someone who doesn’t have independence.”
It also helps to have a new puppy in the backseat the same day, Rosales said.
Helping Guide Dogs for the Blind has helped her family learn important lessons, too.
Rosales said it’s helped her two daughters see “the bigger picture, that there are people out there who need help.”
Since its inception, the Sequim Valley Lions group has helped Puppy Pilots offset costs for food, transportation, shelters and more. Recently, the Sequim Sunrise Rotary began helping the organization too.
Along with the informational meeting Saturday, Puppy Pilots plans to host a dance at 7 p.m. March 24, at the Sequim Elks Lodge, 143 Port Williams Road. Music will be provided by the Old Sidekicks and The Chic.
Matthew Nash is a reporter with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. Reach him at [email protected].