Puppy raisers are volunteers who work with service dog organizations to prepare dogs to serve combat veterans, physically disabled or hearing-impaired individuals, and others with disabilities. Service dogs aren't born -- they're raised, and the first step begins with the puppy raisers. Although service dog organizations vary when it comes to costs and requirements, one thing remains the same: Through nurturing and training, service dogs can change someone's life. We talked with Nicole Shumate, Executive Director of Paws and Effect in Des Moines, to learn the process for becoming a puppy raiser -- and the many rewards that come with it.
The most important element of the service dog process is the puppy. Puppies are brought in from breeders to service dog organizations at about seven weeks old and assigned to puppy raisers. Shumate's service dog organization, Paws and Effect, receives a litter of puppies about twice per year from a nearby Labrador retriever breeder. Though there isn't a requirement on what breed to use for service dogs, Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers are among the more popular breeds due to their size, intelligence, temperment, and obedient nature.
Though basic dog experience is necessary -- you have to actually like dogs! -- becoming a puppy raiser doesn't require any formal dog training experience. In fact, in some cases, it is actually better to have less experience. Shumate prefers less training experience with her puppy raisers so they are able to follow the trainer's lead, instead of resorting to their own, sometimes less-effective, training methods.
Most organizations will require a home check and an application before handing over a puppy.
The training period for a service dog puppy varies depending on the organization. Maria Duryee, a puppy raiser from Urbandale, Iowa, typically has her puppy for about 15 months before it begins advanced training. Paws and Effect has an 18-month timeline for their puppies to be with their raisers. During the 18 months, Shumate says in the beginning, the puppies have six to eight weeks of training at the facility, then at the end of the training period, they spend time at Camp Dodge for a two-week placement course with their recipients. Throughout the 18 months, puppy raisers meet weekly for the first six weeks after receiving their puppies, then once a month until the training is complete. Additionally, Paws and Effect hosts two reunions annually for the recipients and their respective raisers.
During the length of time the puppy raisers have the puppies, raisers provide a safe environment for them, work closely with the trainer(s) when needed, attend approved obedience courses at the training facility, and socialize the puppies in appropriate environments. Also, depending on the organization, some puppy raisers have to cover costs during the duration of time they are raising the puppies.
The cost for puppy raising can vary depending on the organization. Paws and Effect covers all costs for puppy raisers and recipients during training, including vet bills, food, toys, and medications. Through solid community partnerships, the organization receives donations from volunteers, veterinary clinics, and other local companies. Paws and Effect also offers their puppy raisers an all-expenses-paid four-day trip to New York City near the end of the training to help socialize the dogs in a more diverse, fast-paced environment.
However, not all organizations are able to cover costs, and they rely on the puppy raiser to take care of expenses during the duration they care for the puppy. Maria says she has averaged $2,000 per dog, including vet bills (spaying or neutering if required), licenses, classes, food, and toys. However, this has varied with the different organizations she has worked with; some previous organizations covered veterinarian bills.
The most obvious challenge many think of when considering the thought of becoming a puppy raiser is having to give the puppy up after it has completed its training. While this can definitely be hard after caring for a puppy for over a year, Maria says that instead, her greatest challenge was the endless cycle of puppies coming through her home and having to work on potty training at all hours of the day -- and night. Also, she had the typical worries of any good mom: Am I too strict, am I too lenient, is the puppy happy, will it be successful?
For Shumate, who has raised seven service dogs over the years, her greatest challenge with both training and raising puppies is the ability to persevere when days are hard, knowing that there is always more work to be done. "You need to get up and get it all done; it's deadline-specific since the dogs need to be ready by a specific date," she says. The need to be flexible and able to respond to the unique challenges that each dog might present also is hard but well worth it, Shumate says.
With any challenge comes great rewards. First and foremost, you're helping others with a service that is truly irreplaceable. Shumate says one of her greatest rewards over the years is "hearing the stories afterward from the recipients -- how life has changed after they come back after a year -- and seeing how different they are. They have a new outlook on life." Paws and Effect also allows puppy raisers and recipients to meet at graduation, something that can be very rewarding to both. They allow past and present raisers and recipients to stay connected via the Paws and Effect Facebook page, where they also promote fund-raisers and other activities.
Of course, the experience -- and rewards -- can be different for everyone. You might decide to become a puppy raiser for the same reason as Maria, who says she does it for the continuous access to puppies. "I adore puppies. They are the best thing in the world," she says.
If you have the time, patience, flexibility, and willingness to open your home to an adorable puppy, who will enhance someone else's life, consider being a puppy raiser. Challenging? Yes. Rewarding? Most definitely. If you're interested in becoming a puppy raiser in the Des Moines metro area or for more information on Paws and Effect, visit their Facebook page or paws-effect.org.
Nicole Shumate is the owner of Paws and Effect. Her previous training experience includes seven years training search and rescue dogs in Breckenridge, Colorado. She also worked with the Denver Pet Partners (denverpetpartners.org) program in Denver before moving to Des Moines and starting Paws and Effect. For more information on Paws and Effect, contact Nicole Shumate at firstname.lastname@example.org.