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Future guide dogs stealing hearts

One of Halifax’s first four CNIB guide dog puppies is seen during a play date with other puppies in Halifax on Monday. The 10-week-old puppies — Daisy, Dunstan, Marion and Sherman — are with volunteer puppy raisers for the next 12 to 15 months. TIM KROCHAK • THE CHRONICLE HERALD
One of Halifax’s first four CNIB guide dog puppies is seen during a play date with other puppies in Halifax on Monday. The 10-week-old puppies — Daisy, Dunstan, Marion and Sherman — are with volunteer puppy raisers for the next 12 to 15 months. TIM KROCHAK • THE CHRONICLE HERALD - The Chronicle Herald

There was some serious puppy love going on Monday at the CNIB offices in Halifax as the organization showed off four new cuties destined to become guide dogs for blind or visually impaired people.

One black and three yellow lab pups romped around under the watchful eyes of their volunteer raisers and local media.

Catherine Kieran is one of those puppy raisers.

“At this point, we’re just making sure that they’re socialized appropriately,” Kieran said. “Today, the puppies are getting together for a play date here at CNIB. And they’re just so thrilled to see each other because, of course, they’re litter-mates.”

Kieran, who is Atlantic Canada’s communications manager for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, looks after Sherman. The others in attendance were Alicia Newton and her black lab Marion, Patti Sullivan with Daisy and Elaine Mattatall with Dunston.

The puppies are all 10 weeks old. They arrived in Halifax in late January so have only been here about two weeks. The four come from Australia’s Career Dogs, a breeder focused on producing guide dogs. Two more puppies are on their way.

The puppy raisers are responsible for providing safe and loving homes for the little dogs for the next 12 to 15 months. They’re tasked with providing the pups with new experiences, socialization and some basic obedience training. They must get them used to all kinds of different environments and situations so they are prepared for more formal training later.

“This is my first puppy, so I can liken it to having a toddler again,” Kieran said. “It’s a lot of running

interference, keeping them from chewing on things that they shouldn’t be chewing on because right now, they’re all in kind of a teething phase. But it’s not challenging at all. I’m loving every moment of it.”

Newton, cradling the tired Marion in her arms, said she has raised a puppy to be a guide dog before, when she lived in Ottawa more than 20 years ago. Now living in Dartmouth, Newton saidshe lucked out with Marion.

“She’s very confident. I’ve got a good puppy,” she said. “She hasn’t stopped at anything. She hasn’t balked at any doors or cracks like when you go on an elevator.”

Looking at the pup’s little mug, one would think it will be difficult to give her up in a little over a year.

“Yeah, it is going to be hard,” she said, but then added with a chuckle. “Then we’ll just do it again. They’ll give you another one. You can start over.”

Carl McIntosh, the CNIB’s puppy raising supervisor, doesn’t have a problem with that.

“I encourage people to start up again,” he said with a laugh.

“Some people want a break. . . . But if they want to do it over again, I can reassure them that I can give them a puppy every 15 months.”

McIntosh has seen the tears some people shed when passing the dogs on to the next step in the process, but he says they also know they’re doing it for a good cause.

“The fact that you are giving someone who is visually impaired or blind so much freedom, it really, really helps,” he said. “No matter what, it’s going to be hard but you’re doing something that’s really nice.”

McIntosh said all four puppies have adapted well to their first week or so of bonding and basic whistle, house and crate training.

He will guide the puppy raisers through the process of getting the puppies to the point where they’re ready to be handed over to a guide dog trainer who teaches them all the things they need to know to be a guide dog. They then go to a guide dog mobility instructor who does advanced, final training, which takes four to six months. Then the dogs are paired with a user and they will be trained together for about another month before the dog goes home with the client.

The dogs are usually ready to be full guide dogs at two years of age.

Before then, though, McIntosh said it’s good to let them be puppies.

“Let them run around and do stuff,” he said. “Yes, you’re going to have to take stuff out of their mouth but that’s because they’re puppies. There’s a lot of watching them but you do really want them to have fun. You want the whole experience to be fun.”

The puppy raisers will be able to check in with the dogs when they’re with the mobility guide dog instructor, and the person who is ultimately paired with the dog usually keeps in touch.

This Canadian program is relatively new, having started in April. Previously, people would have to go to the United States for their guide dogs.

There are now 10 puppies being raised in Toronto, four in Halifax with two on the way, and another six in Winnipeg. Thirteen families in the Halifax area have been screened for puppy raising. Most costs like vet service and food are covered, although you can always buy the puppy toys.

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