Right around the time when I was heading into my senior years of high school, my family decided to join the puppy raising program from the Hong Kong Guide Dog Association (HKGDA). This eventually led to two additions to our family: Q and Joy. Named appropriately, they bought us endless joy and many more responsibilities to our lives!
Guide dogs are assistant dogs (usually Labrador Retrievers) that are rigorously trained to guide visually impaired handlers safely throughout their daily lives. Not any dog can become a guide dog, as they have been meticulously bred through generations of selection for the most suitable qualities such as: intelligence, obedience, good memory, attention to surroundings, willingness to learn, and ability to concentrate.
They usually undergo official training when they are 14-18 months of age to become a fully-fledged guide dog. So, what happens before then? That is where we – the puppy raising families – contribute.
Joy (left) and Q trying to look cool in front of the camera
The general responsibility of a puppy raising family is to give a loving home to a tiny 8-week old puppy, train and take care of them for around a year, and then give them back to the association (the hardest part) when they are old enough for their formal guide dog training. Being a puppy raiser might seem like a lot of fun, but it is no easy task. After signing up for it on the association’s website, you need to undergo a series of interviews including home visits to see if the accommodation and family environment is suitable before potentially being selected as puppy raising family.
One of the most important requirements is that all your family members are on board with taking care of a puppy. Apart from walking the puppy three times a day, our duties include attending training sessions 2-3 times per month, follow through with the training regimen provided to us and participate in various types of events. These are huge responsibilities that require great coordination within your own family.
Contrasting to regular pets, there are many things that we couldn’t do with our puppies. One of which is playing fetch with them, as it would lead to the development of a behavior undesired in a guide dog. However, they also get to experience a lot more that isn’t allowed for normal doggies such as going to the cinemas, restaurants, or even taking the bus and MTR or underground. Daily outings like these provide the opportunity for the puppies to get used to these unique environments that they would soon need to work in.
The most difficult thing to go through when raising guide dog puppies is near the programme's end. After more than one year of bonding with the little troublemaker in your home, it is emotionally challenging to let go of them for their formal training. This is even more difficult when you are not allowed to see your guide dog puppy for the next year to avoid distraction from their “college life”. We all had to remind ourselves that they are getting the training they require for their noble cause of becoming the eyes of those in need.
So now you might wonder, after going through the puppy raising program, where are Joy and Q, the two guide dog puppies we raised? They should now be paired with a handler and working as fully-fledged guide dogs, right? The answer is no. These two guide dogs eventually ended up staying with our family! The reason for each is drastically different.
Our first guide dog puppy, Joy, has a hypersensitive smell. That means she is extra sensitive to any smell. Even when she is trying her best, it could still get distracting for her. It was eventually determined that she does not pass the high standards of the guide dog qualification. However, due to her ability to learn new tricks and high level of obedience, she has now been extensively trained as a therapy dog. With HKGDA also providing Animal Assisted Interventions (AAI) services, Joy’s responsibilities now stretch beyond serving one single handler but to help multiple individuals including children with autism spectrum disorder and elderly people at nursing homes. Now stationed at our home, my mom will bring Joy out for different events and service sessions on a weekly basis.
Joy taking the minibus
For Q, our second puppy, she did pass the guide dog “college” and, moreover, she did it with flying colours. With such excellent characteristics, she was selected to breed more guide dog puppies! That way, her highly suitable qualities and characteristics would be passed on to the next generation of guide dogs. Since then, she has birthed 6 healthy potential guide dogs. All of which have been distributed to different puppy-raising families and will undergo formal training after a year. In the meantime, she is also staying in our home and occasionally works as an AAI therapy dog along with her older sister.
For more information, please see: https://www.guidedogs.org.hk/