Training Guide Dogs is Hard Work, and Volunteers May Need Help
For some people, companion animals are a source of play, love, care, and friendship. For others, their companion animal also helps them with crucial services that assist their daily lives, acting as their eyes, ears, and more. Guide dogs perform essential services for people with various disabilities, but the work to get them to this point is relentless. At just eight weeks of age, the puppy is joined with a “foster” or “raiser” family and their training begins. Yet, despite many months of socialization and training, they are not guaranteed to be deemed suitable to become a guide or service animal. Puppies who show physical problems (such as hip dysplasia) or that have an anxious or distractable temperament will not graduate the program. Throughout all of this, the humans looking after the animals are aware that these companions are not “theirs.” They are training the dogs, in most cases for a full 12 months, so that they can be adopted by people who need their help.
There is a small but growing body of studies that have been carried out about guide dogs. Research has looked into everything from how best to train animals to become “successful graduates,” to literature examining the positive and negative life experiences that can occur between dogs and humans. Studies have shown that people with guide dogs have enhanced independence better mobility, and an overall improved lifestyle. The relationship they forge with their dog companions lasts many years. Still, what happens before these dogs “graduate” is rarely examined. This study notes that, surprisingly, the relationship between puppy raiser and dog appears to have been “largely ignored” by researchers. When puppy raising has been assessed, researchers have tended to focus on the animal side of the two perspectives. This study aims to remedy this, which is important because “if people in the community do not volunteer to raise puppies and assist with training, the feasibility of guide dog schools would be compromised.”
To get a better sense of the relationship, the researchers of this paper interviewed puppy raisers at four different times: prior to receiving the puppy, a week after receiving the puppy, 12 weeks after receiving the puppy, and 13 months after the puppy first arrived (and subsequently completed training). Participants were encouraged to speak freely about their experiences and were given minimal prompts of the subjects to talk about. Researchers sifted through the responses and organized the data. They found that in their selected group of participants, “the impacts were more negative than positive. […] The costs outweighed the benefits.”
Looking at the data more closely, the authors found that, in general, before the arrival of the dog, participants “anticipated physical, psychological and social benefits from the puppy.” A week after their arrival, participants found that while these purported benefits hadn’t materialized, their stress levels were raised and their physical health was being affected by sleep deprivation and “unanticipated and unwanted puppy behaviours.” Puppies were not able to leave the house unvaccinated, and the puppy couldn’t be left home alone for more than two hours at a time. After 12 weeks, some puppies had already been returned, but those participants that still had the dogs did note that a stronger bond had developed between them both. Again, most of the puppy raisers noted the physical, psychological, and social effects of the puppy were primarily negative. When surveyed 13 months after the puppies first arrived, participants who looked after their puppy for shorter periods of time noted positive effects, while the ones who continued to train the puppy for the full 12-months still discussed the experience rather negatively.
This study brings interesting results and pointers for animal advocates. Firstly, it shows that the mental health of volunteers is of utmost importance, and astute advocates will realize that this applies to puppy raisers, leafletters, protest organizers, and so on. Secondly, the researchers note that, in regards to the puppy raisers from this study, “the organization failed in their duty of care to them. Their experiences, and their health benefits, may have differed, if they had perceived that they had been adequately prepared, trained for and supported in their role.” Though this just one study, and the particular cohort of puppies may not have been typical, the findings are a first step in understanding guide dog training from the puppy raiser’s perspective and seeing how the process of training guide dogs could be improved. All organizations struggle with the issue of retaining volunteers, and avoiding burnout of volunteers is crucial to making sure that any animal organization can properly function over the long term.