For eight years, a Playa del Rey couple has been raising puppies that will eventually develop into guide dogs for the blind.
Guide Dogs for the Blind is a nonprofit organization founded in 1942 and based in San Rafael in Northern California.
The organization provides guide dogs from its own breeding program at no cost to blind men and women throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Four dog breeds — purebred Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, golden Labradors and German shepherds — were chosen for their thinking skills, personality and ability to maintain good health until old age, Gail Hardy said.
When the dogs are puppies, volunteers like Hardy and her husband Fred of Playa del Rey, raise the animals to be intelligent and socially adaptable guide dogs.
GUIDE DOGS — “Guide Dogs for the Blind is one of the finest organizations in the United States,” Hardy says.
Hardy first heard about the organization in special education elective courses she took as an anthropology major at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
When Hardy and her husband moved to Playa del Rey eight years ago, she decided to combine her lifelong love of dogs and animals with philanthropy and volunteered to be a puppy raiser for the organization.
Puppies six to eight weeks old are observed for future guide dog potential.
At eight to nine weeks old, the puppies are sent to live with foster puppy raisers to learn basic commands and movements in public places.
At 14 to 18 months old, the puppies return to the Guide Dogs for the Blind campus for formal training with licensed guide dog instructors.
By age two, the dogs are prepared to begin 28 days of formal training with their blind owners at the campus.
A graduation ceremony allows puppy raisers to be reunited with the guide dogs before the dogs leave the campus for a new life.
“The hardest part of being a puppy raiser is letting them go,” Hardy said. “They are people-oriented dogs who bond with you very quickly. It is like raising children and then sending them off to college.”
PERFECT TEN — Hardy is a member of a Los Angeles group of ten puppy raisers who meet twice a week to exchange stories, ideas and sometimes puppies.
“Puppies need to learn to adapt to other people,” Hardy said. “It should not matter to them who holds the leash.”
Hardy is currently raising her ninth puppy. Abel was the eighth. Hardy also has a ten-year-old golden retriever as a pet.
She says training puppies is a “24-seven job, but also a special thing to do.”
The training consists of taking the puppies out in public every day so they can be accustomed to restaurants, stores, getting on buses, traffic noises and crowds of people.
At grocery and pet stores, the puppies learn to control their curiosity for food.
A friend of Hardy, who is a doctor, takes the puppies to a medical center environment.
Fred Hardy, an engineer, takes the puppies to his office at Raytheon.
The puppies are also taught basic housebreaking skills and commands such as “sit,” “stay” and “good dog.”
“Usually by age one, the puppies have been exposed to so many things and places that they have a solid foundation for formal guide dog training,” Gail Hardy said.
Volunteers like Hardy raise puppies because Guide Dogs for the Blind does not have the staff or time to train the dogs every day.
Hardy receives a $250 stipend for veterinary care, if needed. She pays for dog food, which is a Pro Plan diet she estimates at $35 for a 40-pound bag.
PUPPY PROOF — Hardy has “puppy-proofed” her home, so she doesn’t worry much about damage caused by the puppies.
“On occasion, they have gotten hold of a shoe but this is nothing major,” Hardy said.
Hardy also said the puppies do not train all the time.
When Hardy’s puppies want to rest and relax, they get something that most people would love to have — a swimming pool in the back yard.