Better than a New Puppy Under the Christmas Tree

Mary Dell writes:  How often have your kids begged you for a dog?  Maybe your children are like our daughter, who replied “a puppy” whenever she was asked what she wanted for her birthday or for Christmas.  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. In the meantime, we discovered a different, and much more satisfying way to grant her wish.

Guiding Eyes puppies in training, training puppies to be guide dogs, blond labrador retriever puppies running

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.

Labrador pups, puppies, black lab, playing with puppies

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 pee and poop, again, on 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 Christmas gifts past, I believe that one of the most enduring presents our daughter received was not delivered on any particular December 25th. Instead, she discovered (and we nurtured) a volunteer opportunity that allowed her little girl love of puppies to blossom into a more mature dedication to others less fortunate.

Teaching kids about the importance of volunteering - one puppy at a time!

guide dog puppy, guide dog training, puppy socializer, blond labrador retriever puppy

(Photo of puppies in their training harness courtesy of the Guiding Eyes for the Blind.)


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  1. happyoutlook says

    Hats off to your wonderful daughter! What a creative and inspiring way to her grant her wish.

    • says

      Thanks – little did we know when we first got involved that we would still be involved with the GEB. So rewarding when you stumble upon an activity or interest that your family embraces over a long time.

  2. Emily says

    I love that organization and admire your commitment to foster puppies. What a wonderful model of volunteerism you gave to your daughter…I agree, better than a puppy under the tree.

    • says

      Emily, I know that we share with you a sincere interest in working with dogs. Puppy socializing has really been ideal since it is a short-term commitment that we have tended to do when the kids had a long weekend or during the summer. GEB has so many needs for different levels of volunteerism – this one works for us.

  3. says

    We are foster parents for the Warrior Canine Connection. WCC’s mission is to use soldiers suffering with PTSD to train dogs for wounded warriors. We are currently fostering Ruby, a 6 month Golden Retriever. Here is a blog post I wrote about our decision Being a Puppy Parent

    • says

      Becky, thank you so much for bringing the Warrior Canine Connection to our attention – such a wonderful idea to help the trainers and those who receive the dogs. Looking forward to reading your post.

    • says

      We are happy that she found this commitment. GEB is a fantastic organization that our family has come to admire more and more through the years. Agreed, too, that the puppies are just precious.

  4. says

    What a fantastic way to learn about volunteerism and responsibility. She will be well-prepared when she has her first pet as an adult!

    Currently, we have a wonderful dog that we adopted when he was 2-3 years old – we’re not sure of his age. We have promised ourselves that we will adopt adult dogs from now on. The joy and love we’ve experienced with him has been so rewarding.

    • says

      Training a puppy has its pros and cons, as you know. You may be onto a good plan to adopt only adult dogs who no longer need to pull you down their house-training and chewing learning curve along with them.

  5. Marcy says

    I have never heard of this volunteer opportunity. How fantastic! Great post–your headline is perfect and your description of volunteerism is inspirational. (And those photos… I want a puppy!) :)

  6. says

    {Kathy} What a beautiful idea! My kids (ok some of them) have always begged for a dog. They don’t even think of the not-so-fun parts of dog ownership–just the cuddles. I actually may look into this.

    • says

      Good luck – I hope you find a way to have your kids experience dog ownership so they can play with, but respect the messy parts, of puppyhood.

  7. Marina says

    That is so wonderful! I will need to see if we have something like this in our area as my 6 year has been begging for a pup since forever!

    • says

      There are only three really large guide dog schools in the country, as it has been explained to me, in NY, NJ and CA. I hope you can find a way for your kids to volunteer with animals in any way. We’ve loved it!

  8. NIckida says

    Wow that’s a great way to have a dog for a bit and help others as well. Such a nice thing for you and your family to do.

    • says

      We were lucky to find a volunteer activity that was a good fit for our family – it helped keep us committed.

  9. says

    What a great way to help your community. You must be so proud of you daughter! Happy holidays (:

    • says

      Yes, I am proud of her and so happy that she remains committed to Guiding Eyes. Not sure if a different project would have had the same outcome. Something about the puppies and their adorableness….

  10. says

    This is so wonderful to hear! I hope my children get involved with something they are passionate about when they get older. If were something that involved giving back whether to people or animals that would be even better.

    • says

      The key for us was finding a good match for our daughter and our family – hope it works out for your children, similarly.

  11. says

    That is so great! What a great thing your daughter is doing, you should be so proud!

  12. Gabby McCree says

    This is also a terrific idea for almost empty nesters who don’t want the long term responsibility of a dog!

  13. Vanessa says

    soo awesome!! Those puppies are just precious!!


  1. […] child a high school senior and the youngest increasingly independent, an empty nest loomed. Plus, I am a big dog lover – we have owned four Labs during our two-decade marriage. Yet the mostly likely candidate to […]