Do your kids beg for a dog? Maybe they’re exactly like my daughter, who replied “a puppy” whenever we asked her what she wanted for her birthday. Though my husband and I are dog lovers, and have owned several Labradors during our marriage, we resisted her pleas for a puppy of her own until she became old enough to manage the dog it would become. Instead, we discovered a way to grant her wish that also created a path for her to learn to help others.
When she turned seven, our family became “puppy socializers” for the Guiding Eyes for the Blind (GEB), an internationally accredited guide dog school in Yorktown, New York. Since that June day when we drove home with Jennifer and Jonquil, our first pair of Labrador guide-dogs-in-training, our daughter began to learn about taking responsibility for young dogs.
As puppy socializers, we care for two, six-to-nine week old Labradors and treat them as if they are our own, but for just a few days. Once our shift ends, we return them for testing to see if they have the personality traits that could make them good (saintly, in my mind) guide dogs. Evaluating after home socializing has vastly improved GEB’s ability to predict which dogs have the right stuff to enter the next phase of training.
While I truly love hosting the Labrador puppies, they create chaos within their pen, which happens to be in the middle of the kitchen. But for our daughter, cuddling has always trumped the mess. Climbing into their fenced space, she hugs each new puppy, plays with both and often holds one until he falls asleep on her lap. She feeds and walks the pair and, ever so gently, places one into the outstretched arms of an eager friend.
But she has also had puppies chew on her fingers, and nibble on pajama pants legs. She’s heard them cry and yowl, loudly, for 45 minutes while we drive them home from the GEB breeding center. She has watched them play with their water dish, drenching papers she has just laid down. She has walked them and brought them back indoors only to see them shred and mess up those freshly laid newspapers. In sum, she has learned much about dog ownership. She has also come to understand another lesson. While playing with each new Labrador puppy – 30 by my count – she grew up learning about volunteerism.
When she turned 16, she asked her friends and family to consider donating to Guiding Eyes instead of bringing her a gift for her birthday. As she grows older, and increasingly makes her own decisions about how to spend her time (and money), she has learned the importance of both financial and the roll-up-your-sleeves way to help others.
She absorbed this message while holding the leashes for Jennifer and Jonquil, Harriet and Hawaii, Una and Uncle, Mandrake and Moose and so many other adorable pups. As I think back on her birthdays in the past, I believe that one of the most enduring presents our daughter received was not delivered on any particular day of the year. Instead, she discovered a volunteer opportunity that allowed her little girl love of puppies to blossom into a dedication to others less fortunate.
(Photo of puppies in their training harness courtesy of the Guiding Eyes for the Blind.)