Guide dog group needs NYC ‘puppy raisers’
Wanted: A very special breed of dog lover.
A group that trains guide dogs for the blind is looking for New Yorkers to serve as temporary “puppy raisers” amid a post-pandemic shortage of volunteers.
The pooch recruits will be responsible for housing and “socializing” the Labrador Retrievers for roughly a year — before the hounds head to a training program and are matched with a blind companion, according to Guiding Eyes for the Blind.
“It has such a profound impact on people,” said Thomas Panek, CEO of the nonprofit.
“You get to meet the person you help at the dog’s graduation, so it’s a full circle experience,” he said. “It can be tearful and fulfilling.”
Volunteers with the organization raise pups that are anywhere from 2 months to 1.5 years old — with their main job to expose the good boy-or-girl boarders to a variety of people, places and situations.
The goal is to help the dogs get comfortable with city living so they can be guides everywhere from busy parks to subway stations.
But in recent months, the number of volunteers has dropped to 414 from 450 before the pandemic — leaving potential blind owners on a canine waiting list for a year.
Panek said the dwindling number of puppy raisers is likely due to more humans heading back to the office or itching to travel post-COVID-19, making it harder to be at home for a pooch.
“But [the program] is unique because often a puppy raiser can take the dog to work or travel with the dog,” he said.
Though the puppies don’t have service dog-level access to establishments, they wear “Service Dog In-Training” vests and are socially accepted in most places, Panek said.
“We really need puppy raisers to step up and take these beautiful dogs,” he pleaded.
The push for volunteers comes just in time for National Puppy Day on Thursday, the group said.
Panek, who is visually impaired, has a guide dog named Blaze — with whom he rides the subway, goes to the office and runs in Central Park.
“My puppy raiser changed my life,” he said. “A lot of people say it feels very freeing to have a dog instead of a cane.”
Puppy raisers also attend weekly classes with the dogs and teach them basic obedience. The most difficult part of the job is giving up the dog after spending so much time bonding, Panek said.
“It’s like seeing a child grow up and watching them go away and get their first job,” he said.
But in some cases, the dogs return to their puppy raisers after they retire from guiding at around 8 or 10 years old, he said.
“There’s something a little magical about these dogs. They’re emotional; They have almost a seventh sense about how we’re feeling,” he said.
Anyone interested in volunteering to be a puppy raiser can sign up via the Guiding Eyes for the Blind website.