Raising a puppy for a year and a half then having to give it back is not easy for most, but the Ramirez family has done that not once, but twice.
Isabel Ramirez, now 15, was about to turn 8 at the time, and she wanted a dog.
“I figured this would be a nice experience to see what it’s like having a dog,” Isabel’s mother, Sara Ramirez said.
That’s what drew the family to Guide Dogs of America.
“But it’s not at all like having a pet dog,” Sara said.
Guide Dogs of America, or GDA, allows the blind or visually impaired to live independently by matching them with a fully trained guide dog partner.
Volunteer foster families, which GDA calls “puppy raisers,” have a big part in helping them accomplish that mission.
“A puppy raiser’s job is to provide a safe, loving environment for the puppy,” said Stephanie Colman, puppy program coordinator at Guide Dogs of America’s Sylmar campus.
The puppy raisers job is to not only teach the dog obedience, but also socialize it.
“We have to prepare the dog, so when it’s ready for formal training it’s not afraid and its accustomed to people and different environments,” dad Jeff Ramirez said.
The Ramirez family got their first GDA puppy, Nala, on Isabel’s eighth birthday.
“GDA gives you a lot of guidance,” Sara said. “They give you a binder that’s week-by-week, so you know exactly what to expect and what you should be teaching them at that age.”
Although it was their first time as puppy raisers, Nala made it through training and became a working guide dog.
A couple years ago, GDA had a lot of puppies so they reached out and asked if the Ramirez family was willing to do it again.
They got Tia, their second puppy, just a few days before Christmas in 2016.
“She slept through most of Christmas because she was so little,” Isabel said. “She was a very compassionate dog. She was really sweet and she really liked people.”
“We were much better the second time around,” Jeff said, chuckling. “They really want us to take the dog everywhere, so we always took her to church. Everybody liked her there.”
Tia would join the Ramirez family at church every Sunday, and it didn’t take her long to realize that this was a prime napping opportunity. Tia got so comfortable that she would even begin snoring.
“She was a huge snorer,” Isabel said, laughing. Jeff agreed, “People would always look back and smile because they knew it was her.”
The Ramirez family enjoyed exploring with Tia, and tried to take her everywhere; stores, restaurants, movies, buses, trains.
“I liked trying to think of new experiences for her,” Sara said. “The more experiences they have the better because whoever they’re matched up with you don’t know what they’re lifestyle is going to be like.”
Although they enjoyed being able to take her out in public, there were still challenges they faced — the movies and restaurants being the hardest.
“It’s the butter and the popcorn and all the smells,” Jeff said, “and restaurants where there were crumbs.”
Tia was only allowed to relieve on command and always on leash, rain or shine, she wasn’t allowed on the furniture, and she had to sleep in a crate.
“It’s tough,” Jeff said. “There’s a separation between the human and the animal, and it’s important that they’re accustomed to that kind of thing.”
GDA also requires puppy raisers to submit monthly reports, attend monthly puppy group meetings and take the dog to weekly training classes.
“You have a lot of support,” Sara said. “If you have any problems, the trainers can help you out and we can ask them questions,” Isabel added.
Tia did still get free time to be a puppy though.
“You do get to play with the dog and give her that release and fun,” Jeff said. “They’re allowed to be regular dogs when they’re at home and off leash,” Sara added. “It’s just when you’re out in public that they’re supposed to be working, so they get used to the idea of it when they’re older.”
The Ramirez family all agreed, their favorite thing about Tia was that she always liked to be next to them, and whenever they would watch TV as a family, Isabel would get on the floor with Tia.
“Even if she was asleep on the other side of the room, as soon as I put my pillows down, she would trot over and would lay down on my pillow on top of my head,” Isabel said. “When I think of her, that’s what I miss — her being right there with us,” Jeff added.
Before they knew it, it was time to return Tia to GDA for formal training.
“When we dropped her off, everybody cries,” Jeff said. “She doesn’t even know, and she’s all happy we’re dropping her off like any other day. It’s not much different than dropping your kid off for college — or it sure feels that way.”
“You know from the beginning that its coming and you’re hoping for that, but it’s always mixed feelings,” Sara added. “They very quickly become part of your family, and after just a few weeks with a puppy you’re attached. But when you realize what it’s going to mean to a blind person and that it’s going to be very life changing for them it helps.”
During Tia’s six-month formal training, GDA would keep the Ramirez family in the loop with monthly emails, from the dog, complete with photos of Tia in her harness or out with other dogs.
“Guide dogs are considered the astronauts of the service dog world,” Colman said. “It’s a very complex job — only about half of the dogs will go on to become working guide dogs.”
There are many reasons that GDA will “career change” a dog, including things like medical issues, training difficulties, or even just because the dog doesn’t seem to enjoy the work.
“We care just as much about the dogs as we do the people,” Colman said. “Of the dogs who don’t make it as guides, many become candidates for other types of service dog work.”
“You’re always wondering if you’re going to get the call that she’s going to be career changed,” Sara said.
But Tia made it through training, and the Ramirez’s were “two for two,” as Jeff said.
“She’s not our dog but she certainly feels like our dog — we really loved her,” Jeff said.
GDA is always looking for new puppy raisers.
“We can’t make guide dog teams without puppy raisers,” Colman said.
They accept people, “from all walks of life: families, single people, homeowners, apartment-dwellers, etc.,” according to Colman.
Applicants are required to complete an online application and attend a local meeting where they’ll meet fellow raisers and get a better idea of what to expect. They will then go through the interview process and a home visit to ensure they’ll be a good fit for the program.
While puppy raisers are required to pay for food and toys, GDA pays for all medical expenses.
For more information about puppy raising, visit GuideDogsofAmerica.org or call 818-833-6447.