Leader Dogs for the Blind seeking volunteer puppy raisers

By: Mary Beth Almond | Rochester Post | Published January 12, 2022

 Leader Dog Logan lays by the side of his handler, Richard “Buss” Brauer.

Leader Dog Logan lays by the side of his handler, Richard “Buss” Brauer.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

 Leader Dogs for the Blind Canine Ambassador Coco and Leader Dog in training Sunny pose for a photo at Leader Dogs for the Blind.

Leader Dogs for the Blind Canine Ambassador Coco and Leader Dog in training Sunny pose for a photo at Leader Dogs for the Blind.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

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ROCHESTER HILLS — Close to 80 puppies are entering the Leader Dogs for the Blind program this month, and the nonprofit organization is looking to the community to help raise them.

Mother Nature has been very good to Leader Dogs, according to David Van, Leader Dogs’ director of corporate relations, who said large litters of adorable Labradors and Labrador crosses were recently born.

 “We have about 80 puppies coming into Leader Dog in the next month or so, so we are in urgent need of puppy raisers,” he explained.

COVID-19 has also thrown the program for a loop, limiting the number of puppies that can be raised for the program in the prison system. 

“For a long time we had a lot of puppy raisers in the correctional system, in the prison system, but COVID has limited the number of puppies we can put in those facilities,” Van explained. “On top of having a lot of puppies coming in, that — compounded with the fact that not as many are going to be able to go into the prison system as normal in non-pandemic times — creates quite a need for puppy raisers.”

 Volunteer puppy raisers are joined with their furry friends when the pups are about 8 weeks old and spend the next 12 to 15 months caring for them, teaching basic obedience and house manners, and socializing them in the community. 

With the help of a puppy counselor and an assigned puppy raising group, volunteers learn the proper way to teach the general skills of sit, stay, settling calmly on a mat and walking nicely on a leash. Puppy raisers also assist their four-legged friends in learning unique skills needed as working guide dogs, like ignoring distractions, moving confidently through busy environments and properly greeting people.

When the puppies are 12 to 15 months old they are returned to Leader Dogs for assessment. Those who are chosen to move forward undergo four months of formal harness training with a professional guide dog mobility instructor. The dogs who graduate from training are assigned to visually impaired clients, free of charge.

Leader Dogs for the Blind client and ambassador Richard “Buss” Brauer has experienced firsthand how the program can change lives. Brauer lost his sight at the age of 14 and says he had terrible white cane skills. He was united with his first Leader Dog at the age of 32.

“I was once a person with my head down and my eyes closed, who was pretty much reclusive, very self-destructive, had no confidence, no self-esteem, no self-worth and no value — I just felt like I was worthless. And in 26 days, Leader Dog changed my life. Every day my trainer told me to stand up straight, open my eyes, and to walk with an attitude, because my dog needed a leader. They brought the person out that was inside of me. After 26 days I was very proud and very excited about my blindness,” he said.

Brauer says the reason his blindness was so oppressive the first few years was because his white cane skills were terrible. 

“I had no freedom. Everywhere I went, I had to be with someone. People in our town just thought my wife and I were so in love because I was always holding onto her, but she was my sighted guide,” he said. “When I got my guide dog, the world opened up, and I actually went back and acquired better cane skills.”

Now Brauer often travels nationally, and even internationally, on his own.

“I can’t explain what it feels like to walk with a guide dog,” he said. “It makes you feel so free. I guess it’s kind of like getting behind the wheel of a Ferrari.”

Headquartered in Rochester Hills, TRICO, a global auto parts company that makes windshield wiper blades, recently joined the Future Leader Dogs program. 

TRICO Marketing Manager Lauren Pilette is currently serving as a puppy raiser for Sunny, a male yellow Labrador retriever. The company also recently made a $50,000 donation to help Leader Dogs continue providing its services free of charge to clients. 

Pilette said TRICO and Leader Dogs for the Blind have similar missions — safe travel.

“For Leader Dogs, these dogs are the tool to be able to provide their clients with safe travel, and for us, our tool is wiper blades,” she said.

Pilette, an Oakland University alumna, first brought Sunny into her home in November.

“The puppy definitely breathes some life into our home. He gets to go to work with me and meet all sorts of new people and puppies, so it’s been really fun,” she said. 

Over 350 puppy raisers typically volunteer with Leader Dogs each year, but due to medical, temperament or work-related issues, not all dogs make it as Leader Dogs. 

Some dogs who do not become guide dogs are “career changed” and are adopted by other agencies to work as service, custom or rescue dogs. If the dog isn’t selected to begin a different career, puppy raisers are given the opportunity to adopt the dog as a pet.

Leader Dogs for the Blind is located at 1039 S. Rochester Road in Rochester Hills. 

For more information, to donate or to become a volunteer puppy raiser, email leaderdog@leader dog.org, visit www.leaderdog.org or call Leader Dogs for the Blind at (248) 651-9011. 

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