It's a volunteer opportunity that's hard to lick.
The Canadian National Institute for the Blind is putting out the call for people in Winnipeg to raise puppies so they can become socialized before being trained as guide dogs.
The CNIB, which has been around for 100 years, is launching its first ever program to raise and train guide dogs. It will operate in Toronto, Halifax and Winnipeg.
The first puppies are expected to graduate and be matched with users in late 2018 in Toronto. In Winnipeg, the first puppies will graduate in late 2019.
When the program opens, it will be the only guide dog training school in Manitoba.
Foster families are needed to take pups into their homes from the age of eight weeks to about 12 to 15 months of age. The dogs will then be moved to formal guide dog training.
Helping puppies help people
"The puppy raiser's role is to provide a loving home to a puppy in training and to help prepare the pup through a supervised obedience and socialization skills program overseen by CNIB. All costs will be covered by CNIB," states a news release from the agency.
"CNIB's guide dogs spend their first eight weeks or so with their mother and siblings, after which the journey begins," stated a press release.
"At around eight weeks, puppies are placed with carefully selected puppy raisers. It is here that they will spend the next year or so learning good manners and basic obedience commands such as sit and down. The puppy will learn how to walk on a lead and will be in a good toileting and feeding routine."
From four to 15 months, the puppy is typically becoming familiar with its environment and will learn how to move around safely, avoiding obstacles, negotiating stairs and becoming comfortable in busy malls and various forms of transport, the CNIB said.
The puppy's confidence will grow to a point where it is happy and relaxed around people and other animals of all descriptions. That's when its first family, the puppy raisers, will have to say goodbye and the pooch will move on to a trainer.
Program will help transitions to new guide dogs
There are almost half a million blind and partially sighted people in Canada, according to the CNIB.
For some, a guide dog provides an unparalleled level of mobility, freedom and confidence — opening up the world in a whole new way.
"It was a life-transforming experience for me. It gave me back everything I had lost, when I lost my sight," said Winnipegger Veronika Kanya, who is blind and has been using a guide dog for the past 18 years.
Her current dog, Winnie, is nearly ready to retire, so the search is on for a replacement.
Having a local CNIB training program will be a huge help in making the transition to a new dog, Kanya said.
"They will actually come out to my house and train on a daily basis. I haven't done that before — it will be a giant change," she said.
Before this, she would have worked with someone from CNIB who was strictly a mobility instructor, not a dog trainer. Now, she will work with someone who is both, which will help her and the dog bond much quicker.
"It's a whole lot of things coming together."
Pooches for people in need
While other guide dog training programs exist in Canada and internationally, CNIB's new program will increase the number of Canadian-trained dogs and opportunities for people, the agency said, adding the puppies will mainly be golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers and crosses thereof, because they have a record of excellent performance as guide dogs.
"We obtain our puppies from recognized specialist breeders of renowned stock with a strong emphasis on the traits we need in a future guide dogs," the CNIB stated in a release.
"We don't accept donated dogs from the public, as we need to know the health history and characteristics of the dog stretching back many generations."
Leonard Furber, regional manager of programs and services at CNIB, said apart from being a dog-lover, a prospective puppy raiser needs to be willing to provide pooches with the kind of active and social lifestyle they need to thrive.
"Being a puppy raiser is serious business, and Veronika can attest to how serious this," Furber said. "But it is very, very rewarding as well."
One of the hardest parts about being a foster family could be letting go when it comes time to place the dog with someone in need.
"I imagine it could be quite challenging," Furber said. "That's going to be part of the agreement, and that's part of the reward … knowing that that dog is going to be making a big difference in someone's life."
More information about what it takes to become a guide dog raiser is on the CNIB's website.