Constable: Suburban volunteers raise a puppy, give it back for greater good
Puppies packed with energy patiently wait to play. But the Leader Dog puppy raisers have training to finish first.
"A little puppy, as soon as someone approaches them, they want to go vertical," says Sherry Perkowitz, 54, who lives in Round Lake Beach and volunteers as a puppy counselor for Leader Dogs for the Blind.
"This is a calm greeting," Perkowitz says as she gently approaches Franklin, a 3-month-old Labrador and golden retriever mix wearing a blue "Future Leader Dog" scarf. "If he does it successfully, he's going to get a treat."
Franklin resists the urge to jump and is rewarded, which pleases Franklin's raiser, Jordan Braun, 31, who became a puppy raiser as a teenager in Michigan.
"I got involved with Leader Dogs in middle school to get out of a class I didn't like," Braun says of the independent study project that saw her raise five puppies before Franklin. "I raised my first puppy in high school and then came back to it during the pandemic."
About half the volunteer puppy raisers come back for more puppies, says Rachelle Kniffen, director of communications and marketing for Leader Dogs for the Blind. "She's number six for me," Jerry Ming, 68, says of 8-month old Rikki, a female black Labrador who's been under his training for six months. "As she chewed through another pile of papers this morning, she's still a work in training."
A little fewer than half of the puppies in the program end up working with people who have vision disabilities. The rest go through a "career change" and end up as therapy and comfort dogs, work with law enforcement and courts, are used as breeder dogs, or simply become pets, Kniffen says.
Ming, who owns Parkway Banquets on the shores of Long Lake in Ingleside, where this training takes place, raised Lucy as a puppy. That black Labrador was selected for breeding, produced 27 puppies, retired at age 5 and now lives with Ming, his wife, Peggy, and puppy Rikki in Grayslake.
"They have this down to a science," Ming says of Leader Dogs for the Blind, which was founded in 1939 in Rochester Hills, Michigan, by Lions Club members motivated by a club member who lost his sight and needed a guide dog. "You turn one in and walk down the hall and pick up another."
That process of turning in a puppy you worked with for more than a year can be difficult.
"It was harder than dropping our sons at college," says Barb Brandt, 67, of Northbrook, who is training her second puppy, Hallie, a 3-month-old German shepherd with a touch of Labrador.
"The difference is we knew we would see them again," husband Ernie Brandt says of their sons, Sean and Matt.
Once they are returned to Leader Dogs, the puppies get intensive training for the next four to six months from a guide dog mobility instructor at the canine development center, learning skills such as stopping for traffic or locating doorknobs. Barb Brandt's first puppy, Cully, appears headed for a career change as a court dog, comforting children who need to testify.
"We're thrilled because she loves children," Brandt says.
Puppy trainers are all volunteers and pay for food and other expenses. They need to teach the dog how to behave well enough to advance to the next training.
Perkowitz teaches vocational classes on the Washington Campus of Waukegan High School. "Wendy gets to come with me every day at school," Perkowitz says of her 6-month-old black Labrador. "The dogs have been coming with me since I started."
Her students understand the dog is in training, so they don't rush up to pet her.
"Teachers and administrators, not so much," says Perkowitz, who has to remind them her dog is training.
Once a month, puppy raisers gather for formal training. They also have public outings, where the dogs visit a large public area such as a church, fire station or shopping center. "The more environments we get them into, the more well-rounded they are," Perkowitz says.
"They ride the train with me," Braun says. In addition to sharing a condo with Braun's boyfriend, Matthew Eble, and cats, Lou and Cup, Franklin goes with her to the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where Braun works as an assistant stage manager and Eble is an audio technician. But not every day.
"A puppy this age is not going to sit through Wagner's 'Ring Cycle,'" Braun says.
"Without these volunteer puppy raisers, we couldn't do what we do," Kniffen says. Most of those volunteers live within a few hours' drive of the headquarters. A dozen correctional facilities in Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa operate a "prison puppies" program, and those facilities say it helps the inmates as well as the puppies.
Leader Dogs for the Blind has placed more than 15,000 guide dogs across the United States and in Spain, South America and elsewhere. The charity breeds its own dogs to have the right skills and temperaments, and spends about $48,000 to turn a puppy into a guide dog with a career that generally lasts eight years.
For the clients who receive dogs, there is no charge for any of the training, programs, transportation and other services. Lions Club International members continue to support the program financially and by becoming breeders and puppy raisers, with the charity relying entirely on donations.
To become a puppy raiser or learn more about the program, visit leaderdog.org.
"It's one of the most emotional roller-coasters you've been on," says Ming, a Lions Club member who has trained puppies that now work overseas. "You realize this dog is changing lives."
These puppies training in Ingleside aren't there yet.
"She's working. She's got her jacket on. She's not to be played with," Perkowitz says of the puppies.
The moment this training ends, Franklin and Hallie romp and frolic and play.
"Once the jacket comes off, they get to be normal puppies and play," Perkowitz says. "And get their stupid on."