It was seeing the joy in guide dog families that led one Santa Clarita couple to get in the game. When Debbie and Tim Ames moved to Sand Canyon in Canyon Country in 2007, they bought a house from Jack and Jacque Butler, longtime volunteers with Guide Dogs of America, or GDA.
“We knew this about them, but we never inquired because we knew that we could never raise a dog for a year and a half and give it back!” said Debbie Ames. “We remained friends with Jack and Jacque and saw the puppies that their breeder had, and always wondered how they could give up these pups, which had clearly become a part of their family!”
Six years later, the Ames met Charlene Smith and Carol Civita, who had just picked up a puppy from Guide Dogs of America – a yellow lab they named “Preston.” Like all of the puppy raisers, they were allowed to choose a name for him; it just has to be approved by the GDA.
“As a family, we all wondered, again, how they could raise this adorable, squishy-faced puppy – and give it back,” Debbie said. “It was certainly not something that we could do … or so we thought.”
Charlene and Carol invited Tim and Debbie to attend a GDA graduation, which is open to the public, warning them to bring tissues – and for good reason.
“We watched as 10 new guide dog teams walked up onto the stage, and each team sat next to a member from their puppy raiser family,” Debbie described. “We heard the story about how GDA got started, and how they are supported 100 percent by donations from people like you and me. They do not get any governmental assistance.”
GDA pays for all of the veterinary services for their puppies in training and provides both the dog and the training free of charge to their new owners, in most cases an individual who is visually impaired. The audience heard from some of these individuals next.
“The graduates explained how grateful they were for their new guides, their new partners in life. They explained how they had newfound independence and mobility,” Debbie said. “Some of them cried, some of them laughed and made jokes. We all cried because their stories are extremely touching.”
Puppy raisers stepped up to the podium next. Debbie recalled stories that painted a poignant picture of their experiences.
“One lady was so funny. She made a comment that when she started this, she had no idea that raising a puppy would be like raising a two-year-old on crack,” Debbie said. “She clearly loved the puppy that she raised, but I could see how proud she was of that pup who was now graduating as a guide dog.”
There was also an 18-year-old who spoke. “She said that when she became a senior in high school, she became very ‘rebellious.’ She told her parents that she was going to raise her OWN guide dog! The crowd roared with laughter!”
Though the Ames family had about 20 animals already, including horses, goats and chickens, as they left the graduation, Tim asked Debbie and 12-year-old Savannah when they were going to become puppy raisers.
“I talked to Savannah, Debbie said. “I wanted her to clearly understand how difficult this would be – giving back a puppy who was going to be part of our family for 16 months. She just said, ‘Then we will just raise another one!’”
The family applied to Guide Dogs of America, requesting to volunteer and in January of 2014 they picked up their first puppy, a black Labrador named “Wiki.”
“Talk about falling in love!” Debbie said. “We began taking her everywhere with us: the grocery store, the mall, restaurants, dance competitions. … We take our puppies to classes where we work on obedience with them. We also have a monthly meeting at GDA where we all gather with our puppies. … Our job is to teach basic obedience – sit, down, stand, stay and come.”
When you see guide dogs in training in public, you typically see them in yellow vests, which simulate the harness they will eventually wear.
“We teach them to be out in public in all different situations … to lay quietly under the table at restaurants, and not clean the floor!” Debbie explained. “People always express concerns that they ‘don’t get to be a dog,’ which is far from the truth! They absolutely get to have fun and play with other dogs and people! We just make sure that they are well behaved!”
Wiki became a member of the Ames family until it was time for her to advance to formal training at GDA. “Was it hard? Of course it was!!!” Debbie exclaimed. “I was crying the whole day! We all knew that Wiki was going to want to guide! Not all dogs do.”
When puppy raisers finish the job, dogs that don’t want to guide get a “career change,” Debbie explained. And the puppy raiser family gets the first option to keep the dog.
“We knew Wiki was not going to be career changed, because she was destined to be a guide,” Debbie recalled. “Wiki was paired up with a ‘roommate’ and we all walked together down to the kennel to say goodbye. Now, while that was difficult, I have to tell you what we did to make things a little easier. Two weeks before we were scheduled to take Wiki off to Guide Dog College (as many people put it), we picked up our second puppy from GDA! Another beautiful black lab, who we named ‘Summit.’”
Wiki graduated and was placed with Greg Steinmetz in Camarillo.
“It was a very emotional moment,” Debbie said. “When graduation day came, we got a chance to meet Greg and see Wiki for the first time in several months. GDA has apartments on their property where the students come to live for three weeks while they train with their new guides, so we went to Greg’s apartment to meet him. He is just wonderful!”
The Ames family sat on the floor with Wiki and talked with Steinmetz for about 20 minutes. Wiki seemed very bonded with her new owner.
Savannah Ames joined Greg and Wiki on the graduation stage. It was a proud moment for Tim and Debbie, seeing both their daughter and their first guide dog complete the process.
“Savannah was Wiki’s ‘primary puppy raiser’ and I was there to help,” Debbie said. “My 12-year-old raised a puppy, and then gave her back to GDA, and here Wiki was graduating as a guide dog. And Savannah is speaking in front of a huge audience telling everyone about it. I can’t even express the pride I had in my daughter, and the pride we felt for Wiki was something I can’t explain! And the best part about all of this is we have a new friend in our lives. We absolutely love Greg!”
The Ames’ second puppy now lives with Chris Barrett in Louisiana, a man who lost his vision after he was shot in a hunting incident a few years ago. “Summit is Chris’ first guide dog,” Debbie said. “Chris has told me how much Summit has impacted his life in such a positive way.”
The local family repeated the pattern and picked up their third puppy from GDA, “Bristol,” before turning Summit over for formal training. But because he has dysplasia, Bristol had a “career change,” and now lives permanently with the Ames. They are now raising their fourth GDA puppy, “Maddix.”
“Guide Dogs of America is always looking for families or individuals who would like to raise a puppy; it doesn’t matter if you live in an apartment, a mobile home, a condo, a house, or on acreage,” Debbie Ames said. “It’s a good thing if you have kids or other animals, but it is not a requirement! Visually impaired people also live in all different types of living situations, so dogs raised in all different types of homes are helpful in placing them with someone!”