July 11, 2012 - When Maggie Stach convinced her parents in 2001 to allow her get involved with Leader Dogs for the Blind, she simply wanted a way to get a puppy.
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Now, over a decade later, Stach is about to get her seventh puppy in the program that gives trained service animals to blind individuals. Raising the puppies has taken on a whole new meaning for Stach since the birth of her niece Raemi two years ago. Raemi was born with several health issues, including severe visual impairment. The little girl can only see to a distance of about 12 inches, will never drive, and will need a cane. Once she reaches the age of 16, she may also receive a service animal from Leader Dogs. Perhaps even one that Stach will raise.
"Now it's past me wanting to raise dogs and be around animals," said Stach, a 2007 Brandon High School graduate. "I have a purpose. When I started (raising Leader dogs) it was because it was an easy way to get a dog in the house and my parents not to argue much about it. But now, it's not about me, it's about what that dog can do for someone else. Now it has even more meaning because of my niece."
Pat Boyd, a Brandon Township resident, began raising puppies for Leader Dogs for the Blind (based in Rochester Hills) in the mid-1970s as a family project when her oldest daughter was in 4-H. The mother of five had done a term paper on Leader Dogs when she was in high school and had always loved dogs. When her children left home, she continued raising puppies for the non-profit organization. Over the last nearly 40 years, she has raised almost 50 puppies. She just turned in #48, and when she returns from a planned vacation, she will pick up her next charge.
In addition to raising puppies, Boyd is also a puppy counselor for Leader Dogs, and she was honored this year with the President's Volunteer Service Award for Lifetime Achievement for her dedication and support of Leader Dogs for the Blind.
"I like doing this, it gives me something to do," said Boyd. "We are always looking for volunteers."
Leader Dogs for the Blind places about 400-500 puppies per year with volunteers who raise them from the age of about six or seven weeks-old to about one year. Leader Dogs has their own breeding stock and the dogs placed are golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers and German shepherds.
Would-be puppy raisers must fill out an application and host homes for breeding dogs are also needed. Leader Dogs provides veterinary care for the animals, but volunteers provide food for the dogs, and bear all other costs.
Boyd notes that raising a Leader dog is a bigger commitment than some people may imagine. In addition to the typical housebreaking and training expected with a puppy, raising a service animal involves taking the dog with you wherever you go.
"The dog needs to be socialized and exposed to a lot of outside influences," said Boyd. "You try to expose them to as many things in the world as possible."
Stach takes her puppies with her to classes at Michigan State University, where she is a senior in the pre-med program, and also to her full-time job at Old Navy.
"Most employers are good with it," she said. "The dogs get used to how the routine goes. I have to get approval from my professors, but most say yes."
Volunteers meet with a puppy counselor once a month, where obedience is worked on. Field trips are also taken to help the puppies learn what they are supposed to do. Boyd has taken puppies to the airport, Crossroads Village, on the People Mover in Detroit, to the movies, stores and malls.
"By law, certified dogs have automatic access rights, but not puppies," Boyd noted. "Ninety-five percent of places treat us the same as a working guide dog."
If you see a service animal, always ask the handler first before petting the dog.
Socializing the dogs and taking them everywhere helps them to be comfortable in a variety of situations and with surfaces including slippery floors, dirt, gravel, cement, and stairs of all kinds. Leader dogs are courageous animals who must be obedient to their handler, but also must be taught intelligent disobedience.
"When given a command, the dog has to realize whether it is a safe command," Boyd said. "If an owner has given the dog a command to walk and a car is turning a corner, the dog must disobey. Guide dogs make hundreds of decisions all day long."
Turning the dog in after a year of raising him or her was difficult in the beginning, Boyd and Stach acknowledge, but the pain is eased by knowing that animal will help someone in need, and the next puppy will soon arrive for them to love and raise.
After turning a puppy in, Leader Dogs for the Blind does additional specialized training for the dogs. Of the 400-500 puppies per year that are raised, about 200 successfully graduate to be placed with blind people all over the world. The other 200-300 dogs get a career change for a variety of reasons—they are dog-distracted, don't want to do the work, have a fear of traffic, or can't adjust to a kennel. In those cases, the person who has raised the dog has the option to take the dog, or they are rehomed. Boyd said there is no problem rehoming career changed Leader dogs.
Stach said being a Leader Dogs volunteer has helped her overcome shyness and has been a wonderful experience overall.
"It's like having children—every day is a learning experience," she said. "Those experiences are worth it, to see a dog grow up and know what you did with that dog and what they will do for that person. A dog can't get to that point without you and Leader Dog can't do this without puppy raisers."
For more information, visit leaderdog.org.
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville