A Saanich gymnasium was full of golden, yellow and chocolate Labradors retrievers last week. While the tiny puppies could get rambunctious, it wasn’t all tail wags and games – it was also some serious business. They were training their hardest to be guide dogs, after all.
The BC & Alberta Guide Dogs service breeds and raises Labs for the use of its guide dog program, its autism support dog program and its Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) support dog program. The dogs are bred in Delta, and given to volunteer puppy trainers for 14 to 18 months for 24/7 hands-on training and acclimatization. The puppies then go to advanced training before being given to their forever home.
Now that the organization has amalgamated with the Vancouver Island Compassion Dogs to help veterans with PTSD, however, more dogs are being bred and more volunteers are needed to help raise the puppies.
“Right now we have about 20 volunteers on the Island,” said Samantha Jagt, puppy training supervisor. “We’re looking to almost double that number. … We have quite a few females expecting in October, and more will come after that.”
The puppies go everywhere with the volunteers to get them comfortable with many different environments, and to socialize them with other people and dogs. They also meet weekly with Jagt for important lessons on listening, restraining impulses and following commands.
“You need quite a bit of time to be involved in the puppy raising program,” Jagt said. “We have weekly obedience meetings, monthly one-on-one visits with myself, vet visits and special events.”
All medical costs and basic needs are paid for by the BC & Alberta Guide Dogs (though trainers are welcome to buy them lots of toys and are responsible for poop bags), and specific training is expected outside of the weekly lessons.
For Carla Williams, who has been a puppy trainer for five years and raised four dogs in the process, it is well worth it.
“I came for the dogs and I was really surprised to find a community, and a lot of new friends,” Williams said. “I really enjoy the challenge, I’ve learned a lot about dogs, dog training and about myself, so we’ve really enjoyed it.”
MaryJo Duggan always wanted to help raise a puppy, but couldn’t do so until she recently retired.
“Now I can give back, and it’s great, I really enjoy it,” Duggan said. “Not only are you giving back to your community in B.C. and Alberta, but you’re also feeling the rewards of hard work, so there’s a lot of pride in that.”
While both Duggan and Williams knew that it would be sad to give the pups up when they were done their training, they both agreed it was a worthwhile endeavor.
“Speaking from experience it’s a totally worth the heartache,” said Jagt, who’s raised four puppies herself. “Because you really do change someone’s life.”
Anyone interested in learning more can visit bcandalbertaguidedogs.com.