PALMETTO -- If your heart goes pitter-patter and warms at the sight of a cute little puppy at play, Palmetto's Southeastern Guide Dogs have the perfect volunteer program for you.
The nonprofit organization that trains guide and service dogs for people all over the United States produces about 250 puppies annually for guide dog training. Before their paws hit the ground running for more intense training at the facility, they spend up to 18 months living with volunteers who provide the puppies a good home and lay the life-changing groundwork that will lead to an emotional human/canine pairing.
Southeastern Guide Dogs retains about 75 percent of their puppy raisers each year but more than 50 more puppies need a temporary home.
"My dream would be to have a waiting list," said Leslie Shepard, director of puppy raising services.
The puppies are handed over at 10 weeks to puppy raisers after undergoing training from the time they are
3 days old.
"They get used to being touched, human smells, bonding with humans and at about four weeks they are blank slate," said Shepard. "At that time, we begin to introduce them to every possible thing we can think of that helps with problem-solving skills."
Shepard said by the time the puppies leave the kennel, they are ready to go out in public and begin to understand what it's like to work with humans. The only real commitment is time.
"Anyone who is willing to commit the time and energy is committed to our mission," said Shepard. "You don't even have to have any dog experience. We are here to support you every step of the way."
Puppy raisers become involved in a network led by an area coordinator. Puppy raisers help with basic obedience training. Twice a month the local group gathers at various outings to introduce puppies to a variety of environments.
For any dog lover, the chance to raise one of the best-bred dogs in the world is hard to pass up, so what's the catch?
You eventually have to give the dog back.
"It's the biggest reason I hear for not volunteering and why some people stop, but we have an endless supply of puppies and we want people to become serial puppy raisers, so when the time comes to bring the dog back for training, they know they can leave with another puppy," Shepard said.
For some, the arrangement is perfect. Linda Pyper is raising her second dog, Ava.
"When I moved here, I had a black lab mix that I had to put to sleep and I don't ever want to put another dog to sleep," said Pyper. "I can't bear it. It's so hard. So, besides the fact that I know what I'm doing is for the good, it helps me avoid that moment of finality."
Amanda Turner began puppy raising in high school. She took a break as she got a little older and has since married and had children. They are now on their second dog, Bobb. Having gone through the process as a family with their first dog, Granger, Turner said giving the dog back was easier because her children were able to attend Granger's ceremony and even met the man Granger was going to help.
"We all got to come and say goodbye and that really helped close the circle for the kids to see why we worked so hard and that it was worth it," she said.
Stephen Turner said the dogs become part of the family.
"But we know he's going into something better and is going to change somebody's life and just to know that and know we are giving back to someone, is a great feeling," Turner said. "It's hard to give him back, but it's more knowing he's going to a greater cause than our selfish want to keep him."
Information: 941-729-5665, ext. 112, or go to guidedogs.org.
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.