The most frequent comment I got when I was out in public with Kirby besides, “oh my gosh he’s so cute,” was, “how can you give him up? I could never do that.” To be honest, when I started this process, I wasn’t sure I would be able to either.
As a puppy raiser, I love my puppies-in-training with my whole heart. In fact, for the 14 months that I had Kirby, he had my heart. I used to be one of those people who stood on the outside asking others, “How could you possibly raise a dog knowing you had to give them up at the end?” I was certain I could never do it myself. So how I ended up raising a puppy and giving him up to become a guide dog is a story I want to share.
Puppy raising wasn’t on my radar, and wasn’t my idea to begin with. My mom had recently retired from teaching and wanted to give back. We are a “dog family” and so naturally doing something with dogs was a no-brainer. My mom did lots of research and heard great things about the reputation of Guide Dogs of America. She filled out the puppy raising application and was completely gung-ho about it. Personally, I had lots of reservations about the whole process. Especially about the part at the end when I would have to turn the puppy back in to the school. I am a pet-lover and have as soft spot for animals. I’m the girl who can watch the saddest movie in the world about people I might tear up a bit, but I always ugly cry when an animal dies. In fact, I still have nightmares from my childhood about when Bambi’s mom died. I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed at that movie. I was worried raising a dog that I would have to give back, no matter how good the cause, would crush my soul. The day our family was interviewed to puppy raise by our local area leader, I remember asking how I could prepare and protect myself for, “turn-in day” and the inevitable heartbreak that would come. Our area leader simply said, “Go to a graduation ceremony. You will see why we are able to give them back.”
A few weeks later, I found myself at my first graduation ceremony. It was a full house mixed with puppy raisers, the graduates friends and family, and past graduates. If you’ve never been to a graduation ceremony, it’s truly a special experience because both the graduating blind person and the puppy raiser of the graduating guide dog get to speak. Each of the graduating team’s puppy raiser spoke first. I immediately started crying because each puppy raiser spoke about the day that they picked up that little bundle of puppy love and cuddled them in their arms. They expressed their joy in being part of the journey. Taking that little 8-week old puppy and giving it a solid foundation of obedience and socialization until they turned in a competent 16-18 month old dog back to GDA. They talked about all the fun and interesting experiences they shared with their puppy during their training. But most of all, they all talked about their love for and the bond they formed with their puppies. I saw myself in all of these puppy raisers and realized that I wasn’t alone in the feelings I would have for my puppy. These puppy raisers didn’t hurt any less than I would when they let their puppy move on and live out their higher purpose of being a guide dog. I knew then that you couldn’t be a puppy raiser if you didn’t adore and get attached to these dogs.
Next, it was time for the graduating blind partner of each team to speak, and if I thought I was moved to tears by the puppy raisers speaking, then I had another thing coming. My whole outlook on raising a puppy changed when I listened to those 10 graduates share their stories. Even though they came from different backgrounds and circumstances, their message was all the same. Every one of the graduates spoke so wholeheartedly about the massive life-changing gift they were receiving in getting matched with their new guide dogs. They talked about how their world, as they knew it, had just opened and every opportunity and adventure was now possible to them because of the new “eyes” they now had at their left side. They spoke about how since receiving their new partner they had experienced things that had been taken from them because of their blindness, things that we sighted people take for granted everyday. Like walking with enough speed and confidence that they can feel the wind in their hair. Going out at nighttime which some hadn’t done in years. Most importantly they were now able to be self-sufficient, independent, and no longer felt like a burden to their friends and family. Their new companion took on the role of leader, guide and protector. They were so grateful for this gift and I was able to see in them the confidence they had gained and the renewed energy in their spirit
I cried quite a bit listening to the puppy raisers, but I cried even more (happy tears this time) listening to the graduates speak. I put myself in their shoes and thought about how scary it would be to be blind in a world that relies so much on being sighted. In that moment, I felt that if I could do even one small thing to help someone who was blind, then I was going to move forward and put myself to good use. After attending that graduation, my attitude changed from, “How am I going to be able to give up my puppy?” to “How could I NOT give up my puppy to become such a spectacular gift to someone who needs him so much more than I do?” I am now lucky enough to be the puppy raiser attached to Team Jirby. My experience with Kirby was so incredible, I decided to do it again with Gable. Now, I tell people when they ask, “Yes of course it will be difficult and was super hard to turn-in this living representation of my heart.” But my answer to the question of “How could you give up your puppy?” is, “HOW COULD I NOT?”
Editor’s Note: This blog was written by Jen Buehler who is a current puppy raiser for Guide Dogs of America in our Orange county chapter. Her first guide dog that she raised was Kirby who went one half of our beloved team “Jirby”. She is now raising her second guide dog Gable.