SEQUIM — The group has a new name but the same goal: to help a small group of dedicated volunteers train guide dogs, who in turn help the blind gain more freedom of movement.
The past 12 months, however, have seen the COVID-19 pandemic stymie local efforts to help raise those dogs through the local group Guide Dogs for the Blind-Sequim-Port Angeles, WA Puppy Raisers.
Deb Cox, who in June 2007 helped develop the organization known for years as Puppy Pilots — the only such group on the North Olympic Peninsula — said the pandemic has created a number of issues for guide-dog raisers.
“Our job is to socialize them as much as possible,” Cox said last week. “Unfortunately with COVID, we’ve not been able to do as much as we are able to do.”
That training includes activities such as riding on public transportation and dealing with urban settings. With fewer people riding buses and limited travel options — such as the travel ban to Victoria, B.C. — local raisers have to get a bit more creative with ways to train their dogs.
Most seriously, Cox said, COVID also has led to a decline in local volunteers. Health restrictions imposed last March shut down breeding of the dogs, she said, and now the Sequim organization that had seen as many as 10 to 12 raisers and sitters at one time has dwindled to two.
Now that breeding has recommenced, Cox said, “they need places for puppies to go.”
Sequim raisers get 8- to-10-week-old puppies — typically a Labrador or a Labrador-Golden Retriever mix — from breeders in California to socialize and care for them for a little more than a year.
The dogs are usually about 50 pounds, Cox said — bred about 30 pounds lighter than typical Labradors to help the visually impaired travel.
The club covers costs for food and toys; raisers contribute their time.
Cox helps people new to the group with some one-on-one training — outside with masks on, if weather allows, she said — and the club provides some video training as well.
“You have to embrace it; you have to have clearly in your mind the reason you’re doing it,” Cox said. “(And that) the dog doesn’t belong to you.”
Puppies can be placed in a variety of situations, Cox said; urban or rural, pets or no pets, children or no, the dogs can deal with (and need) a variety of living situations, she said. Households with older children and pets that get along with the incoming dog work better than others, she said.
“We’re never sure where they’re going to end up,” Cox said.
Volunteers can also help by being sitters who are on call and can take on a dog trainee for a specific time to help give the dog some variety and raisers a break.
“It’s really good for the dogs to be in different households,” Cox said.
Claudine Sill, who is raising Rolanda — a 24-month-old Labrador who was headed to Boring, Ore., last Saturday — said she started as a sitter before jumping in as a raiser.
“This (training) gets you to do things you haven’t done before,” Sill said, such as traveling on public transportation or moving over varying urban terrain.
After a little more than a year, raisers send the dogs off for further training at the Guide Dogs for the Blind facility in Boring — typically 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 further training.
Sill said it’s somewhat difficult letting go of the dogs after their training time, but she likened it to sending children off to college; the sense of purpose in helping someone else far outweighs the personal loss, she said.
Even if a particular dog doesn’t qualify as a guide dog partner, Guide Dogs for the Blind works with 10 other groups that utilize the canines as they help veterans, diabetics and people with other hearing issues, Cox said.
In addition, dog raisers also work with the Canine Buddy Program, an organization the connects trained dogs with young people with vision impairments that help them get used to having a guide dog later in life while teaching that person responsibility.
Over the years, Sequim’s group had trained about 40 individual dogs, Cox said, with many becoming guides for blind individuals, some for service-dog jobs, and others as therapy dogs.
Cox, who is raising Hadley, her 13th canine trainee — “They’ve been close to back-to-back,” she said — noted that Sequim has been very supportive of the program, particularly the Sequim Valley Lions and Sequim Sunrise Rotary.
Also helpful are local merchants, she said, who understand these dogs are not service dogs but benefit from new experiences such as being in local shops.
For more about Guide Dogs for the Blind-Sequim, WA Puppy Raisers, contact Cox at 360-929-4802 or [email protected]
For more about the program, see guidedogs.com/puppy; there, interested people can get a sense of the scope of the program. But for serious inquiries, Cox recommends contacting her directly.