Mary Dell writes: When your kids were young, how often did they beg for a dog? Maybe your child resembled our daughter, who replied “a puppy” whenever anyone asked her 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 never succumbed to her pleas for the new puppy she longed to find under the tree. Instead, we discovered a different, and much more satisfying way to grant her wish.
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 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.
Now that she is 17 and increasingly making her own decisions about how to spend her time (and money), she appreciates the importance of 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. In my dog-loving mind, this was way better than finding even the most irresistible Labrador puppy under the tree.
(Photo of puppies in their training harness courtesy of the Guiding Eyes for the Blind.)