Welcome to the second installment of our “Adventures in Co-Piloting” series, where we share stories submitted from past and present Co-Pilots (puppy raisers)…this is Julie and Phil’s inspiring story!
We have been lucky enough to have raised six golden retriever puppies for Pilot Dogs.
We’re given our puppies when they are approximately eight weeks old. Adorable bundles of joy with squishy faces and puppy breath! All cuteness and fluff.
But there is much work to be done and positive reinforcement training starts immediately. Lots of praise and treats for the most important goal of going potty OUTSIDE. Smile, mark the action with “nice” and treat. Praise, praise and more praise, and at first lots of treats.
All positives for the pup. They are like little sponges absorbing everything, and we want it all to be good.
But of course they are puppies and we’ve got to keep a close eye on them. That means going outside to potty, or at least try, a lot. And we keep them out of trouble by paying attention to what they might find interesting.
Anything that is on the floor or at puppy eye level is fair game. So they have lots of their own toys to redirect their wandering eyes.
I’ve learned a few things from my friends that have children…if they’re too quiet, they’re probably into something.
Our puppies start obedience classes at four months of age. We are lucky to have a facility close to home with dedicated trainers that teach us, because really, obedience is for the person, not the dog. We’ve learned it’s all about proper communication.
When they complete their classes, we get our official Pilot Dog vest and start taking our pup out in public places. This is our most important job. Socialization.
The key to a calm confident dog is exposure to lots of situations, but slow and steady is the pace. We don’t want the pup to be overwhelmed or to feel afraid. We let them check things out and approach scary things slowly. What’s a scary thing to a puppy?
Well, one of our pups was afraid of big green trash bins. Another of statues, especially the community nativity scene. Another freaked out at an inflatable beach ball blowing around. We don’t push them, but we encourage them to approach and sniff, then praise and treat to reward their bravery.
They also must be comfortable around traffic and construction noises, crowds of people, bikes, strollers and other dogs. So we look for opportunities to expose them to all that. And work on ignoring distractions. With permission, we take our pups inside stores, offices, etc. Now, we’ve gotten to know our pups and judge how much they can handle, and of course be sure they’re potty trained or at least know the signal when they might have to go.
Lastly we do restaurant work. Outside seating first, then inside for short amounts of time so they can learn good manners. No table surfing, begging or eating off the floor, just resting quietly without disturbing anyone. The goal here is other diners have no idea that a dog is under our table.
Every outing with our dog is a teaching moment.
We’ve enjoyed taking our pups to some really great places but it doesn’t have to be any place so fantastic. They are happy to go anywhere.
Each of our pups have opened doors to conversations with complete strangers and we often joke about allowing extra time when we’re out with them. Someone will inevitably stop us to ask “What’s a Pilot Dog?”. We love to share what we are doing and why. But that always leads to the question I wish I had a dollar for each time we’re asked….How do you give them up?
Yes, well, that is the hardest part. And no, it doesn’t get any easier no matter how many times we say goodbye. We have fallen in love with each one of them. We know that when we kiss them goodbye and hand over their leash that if we did our job right, we will probably never see them again.
But our lives have become more and more enriched by each dog. We are just better people for having these pups in our lives and we know they have a future way bigger than being our pets.
When our puppy is matched with their person, Pilot Dogs sends us a letter and picture of them together. After a waiting period of six months to make sure the match is successful and everyone’s settled in, we can write a letter to Pilot Dogs to be sent to our pup’s new owner telling them about their puppy’s first year and asking to make contact.
The new owner of our second puppy, Faith, wrote to Pilot Dogs wanting to contact his dog’s puppy raiser to say thank you. Get this…our puppy lives in São Paulo, Brazil with a wonderful fellow named Andre. Now through the magic of the internet and Google Translate, we exchange letters and pictures frequently. We are so thrilled!
He writes so beautifully about how much Faith means to him. He says she is his angel and how having Faith has changed his life. He says he has no fear of living his life to the fullest with Faith by his side. He is no longer dependent or self conscious. He said he used a cane at first and got pretty good at it, but with Faith he is flying.
Just think….Faith was raised in a small town of around 7,000 people and is now guiding a man 5,000 miles away around a city of 12 million. Faith is beside Andre in busy subway stations as they go about their business each day. And she guides him exquisitely, he says. Now this is something we never exposed her to, as well as learning a new language. Our Portuguese is, well, a little rusty.
Andre and Faith were even featured in a Pedigree dog food commercial. It can be found on YouTube under Pedigree Human Guides. It’s in Portuguese but there are subtitles. It’s beautiful to see the special bond Andre and Faith have. And of course we are so proud.
Now I’d like to think she does her work so well because of her fabulous puppy raisers, but I’m pretty sure it’s the hard work and dedication of the wonderful team of trainers at Pilot Dogs.
But really, this is how special these pups are. They’re well bred, whip smart, willing to work, and full of love. We are so proud of all our pups and feel we were a part of their success.
A Pilot Dog owner told us that her dog is her only freedom. We love that! Imagine the little pup you raise could set someone free. A Pilot Dog can change a person’s life because their dog becomes their eyes.
Getting our new puppy is always exciting, but a little bittersweet. After all, we are working towards a difficult goodbye. The time we have with them goes so fast. We have so many happy days with our pups and one really bad day with lots of tears and a long, quiet ride home from Columbus. But we reflect on a saying that we hold dear…“In every service dog beats the heart of their puppy raiser.”
Now, are you saying “I could never do it!”? It isn’t easy. But the sacrifice you make is worth it to know how much better these pups are making in another person’s life. Think about all the freedoms having your eyesight allows. You can give that same freedom to someone just by raising an adorable puppy! We consider it a privilege to help a person in some small way to gain independence as they navigate their world that has become dark and small.
Dare you dream that you can make a difference? Yes you can! You can change a life, one cute puppy at a time.
Pictured are Pilot Puppies Rider, Faith, KayCee, Finnley, Girtie and Neely.