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Puppy raisers fundamental to Pilot Dogs training program

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Pilot Dogs, a central Ohio nonprofit, has been serving the blind community for more than 60 years by providing guide dogs.

Pilot Dogs, whose headquarters is at 625 W. Town St., Columbus, has about 35 staff members who work at the main building and at kennels where the dogs are kept.

Toni Gray, puppy director for Pilot Dogs, is in charge of the training program. Pilot Dogs gets puppies for training from area breeders and has its own in-house breeding program, as well.

According to Gray, the dogs used for training are one of seven breeds: golden retriever, Doberman pinscher, Labrador retriever, Vizsla, poodle, German shepherd or boxer.

The group always is looking for puppy raisers, Gray said.

Puppies raisers have the job or preparing the dog for its life as a guide dog. The puppies, usually placed with raisers when they are 7 to 10 weeks old, are expected to be treated and taken care of as if they were a family pet.

Some exceptions apply, though. Gray said she wants raisers to have a crate for the pet and not allow the animals on furniture or beds. Raisers also attend obedience programs.

Pilot Dogs pays for all of the veterinary bills for the dogs and reimburses for approved obedience-training classes. Raisers are aksed to supply food for the dog.

Gray said Pilot Dogs also uses prisons to raise the dogs for the program.

"Four of the prisons raise for us as well," Gray said.

She said many raisers are children.

"Lots of children do it for service hours. Lots of 4-H kids do it," she said.

She said many retirees and singles also volunteer for the program.

Pilot Dogs asks that raisers agree to take the dogs to places where they could socialize with other dogs, where they might be around loud sounds or lots of people.

"We ask that they get out twice a week," Gray said.

She said dogs need to be able to get along with other dogs and people.

"A dog should be friendly and outgoing, gets along well with other dogs," she said. "A lot of the blind travel together."

After a dog is returned to Pilot Dogs following a year at a raiser's home, it continues training at the Pilot Dogs facility. The dog then is paired with a local resident for use.

"We prefer local people, but we have had people come from other states." Gray said.

About 150 people are paired with guide dogs from the program each year. When getting a dog, a blind person stays at Pilot Dogs while he or she goes through training and bonds with the guide dog.

Not all of the dogs that go through the program become guide dogs. These dogs are adopted out. Currently, the group has a three-year waiting list for people wanting to adopt one of the dogs.

According to Gray, it is best to reapply for one of the dogs every six months if prospective owners haven't been contacted.

According to Kate Walker, assistant to the executive director, most dogs are retired after around eight years.

"At eight years, we tell them (handlers) to start looking for signs they are ready to retire," Walker said.

Pilot Dogs is funded primarily through the Lions Club, private donors and some fundraising efforts. The group holds its biggest fundraiser in the fall, and a women's board has such fundraisers as its spring flower sale. The alumni donated funds for a fenced garden area that is used to train dogs, with curved walkways and such obstacles as benches and a bridge with steps.

For more information on becoming a puppy raiser or a volunteer or to learn more about Pilot Dogs, go to pilotdogs.org.

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