While it may seem too good to be true, area residents can play with puppies and contribute to a good cause at the same time.
Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB), a nonprofit based in San Rafael that specializes in training guide dogs, has a club in Angels Camp where locals can volunteer to raise puppies for the organization.
Angie Landry Ruiz is the leader of the local club, aptly called the Celebrated Guide Dogs of Calaveras County. While the GDB has been in operation for 75 years and has puppy-raising clubs spread across 10 states, the club in Angels Camp is a more recent addition, founded in 2015.
“I’ve led the group from the beginning,” Ruiz said. “I was a guide dog instructor at GDB – that was my career until I moved up here. So I’ve been involved with GDB since 2001. I was a puppy-raiser, and then I became an instructor and then I became a puppy-raiser again.”
Puppy-raisers are responsible for teaching good manners and providing socialization experiences for the puppies, and are required to attend regular meetings led by volunteers and overseen by GDB field staff members who provide a structure and framework for teaching the pups foundational skills.
While GBD pays for veterinary costs and provides leashes, collars and other training equipment, volunteers are responsible for food, toys and sometimes crates. Along with daily training exercises, volunteers are encouraged to allow their puppies plenty of play and exercise.
“The puppy-raiser’s job is really to give them good house manners and get out and socialize them, and we give them some really basic obedience training,” Ruiz said. “That’s kind of where we leave off, and then the professionals take over after they go in for training.”
When the puppies are about 15-20 months old, they return to San Rafael for two to three months of formal guide-work training. Some graduate as guide dogs or become breeders, while others go on to become other kinds of service dogs. Those deemed unsuitable as guide dogs, breeders or other service dogs are put up for adoption. The graduation rate is about 47%.
“We like to call them career-change dogs, and if they are not appropriate for another sort of service animal, then they can be adopted,” Ruiz said. “The puppy-raiser has the first option to adopt them, or place them with a friend or family member.”
The GDB’s breeding dogs – made up entirely of Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and crosses of the two breeds – live as family pets at volunteer custodial homes within a 50-mile radius of the company’s campus in San Rafael. All of the puppies are born at the campus. Volunteers receive the puppies at eight weeks of age and raise them for roughly a year.
“We always need puppy-raisers,” Ruiz said.
At the club’s meetings, which take place at 6 p.m. on the first and third Thursdays of the month at Round Table Pizza in Angels Camp, participants discuss progress and work out various issues. Because several puppies recently left at the same time for training, only four are currently being raised by members of the club, Ruiz said.
“We work on some basic obedience, and then we’ll go for walks or we’ll work on puppy-handling,” Ruiz said. “It’s really rewarding; it’s a lot of fun and I’ve met some amazing people. There’s never anything wrong with cuddling puppies all the time.”
Sally Hughes, of Dorrington, is currently raising a 10-month-old black Labrador puppy named Jen in the Angels Camp club. Jen is the third dog that Hughes has raised for the organization. Her first puppy, Steinbeck, had to be career-changed due to his inability to stay focused on tasks. Hughes adopted him and had him certified as a therapy dog, taking him to Just Like Home in Angels Camp, Avalon Health Care in San Andreas, the Community Compass in Jackson, and to several area schools.
“We worked a lot with children in the school system,” she said. “They have a program called Tail Waggin’ Tutors, where if the children read to a dog, they’ve proven that they achieve 20% to 30% more in their reading ability.”
Steinbeck always had a distinctive wrinkle across his forehead, Hughes said.
“I used to tell the children that he was pondering his next novel,” Hughes said, laughing. “It was my way of introducing more reading to them.”
Hughes’ next puppy, Nevada, recently graduated as a guide dog and is currently living with her new owner in Colorado.
“She was amazing,” Hughes said. “My puppy leader from the time Nevada was probably 12 months old said, ‘If she doesn’t make it, I’m going to be shocked.’ Something about the way she handled things. She was never nervous; she always went and did whatever I needed her to do. They called her back at 14 months old, and she graduated in October.”
When a dog graduates as a guide dog or a breeder, the puppy-raiser is invited to a ceremony at the San Rafael campus. Hughes was able to meet Nevada’s new owner, and has even kept in contact with him.
“He’s quite an interesting man,” she said. “He started to go blind when he was in his 20s, so Nevada is his fourth guide, and he knows how to work with a dog. He said it would take them a year of working together before they’re actually a really good team.”
GDB pairs guide dogs with people who are blind or visually impaired at no cost to them. Other services, such as two-week training courses and support following graduation, are also provided free of charge. The organization receives no government funding, and its services are made possible entirely through donors and volunteers.
“They even paid his airfare to fly out here and back,” Hughes said. “And they spend two weeks training, and they have these lovely apartments that they stay in.”
Hughes said that it was hard giving up Nevada, but she felt like she was contributing to a good cause.
“You’re changing someone’s life,” she said. “For me, it’s like, ‘How can I not do this?’”
When Hughes went to San Rafael to return Nevada for training, she picked up Jen. She said that a friend of hers is now raising her 26th puppy for GDB.
Jen sat stoically at Hughes’s side as she spoke, remaining calm as a steady stream of cars and people passed by. She even kept her composure when a small boy raced in front of his mother and gave the pup a big hug, mistaking her for another dog that he knew. Jen wagged her tail gently and seemed disappointed when the little boy moved on.
“She thinks you’re another puppy,” Hughes said, laughing.
Hughes has worked as a chef in the area for the past 40 years, and now has her own business as a personal chef. She said that Jen hasn’t once begged for food while she cooks.
“She just lays down quietly in a corner,” she said.
Hughes said that GDB could always use more puppy-raisers.
“Because it’s such a commitment, I think it’s hard for a lot of people,” she said. “But for me, it’s fun because they’re so smart and they pick up things so fast, and it’s so much fun to take them places – everywhere. I mean, I took Nevada to concerts – Bear Valley, Sierra Repertory Theatre – and to the dentist, and to the chiropractor. She went everywhere.”
For those interested in learning more about GDB, Hughes recommends viewing a 2018 documentary about the organization called “Pick of the Litter.”
“It’s a wonderful documentary,” she said. “It’s incredible to watch the training; how they have to guide their person around all these obstacles. It’s really amazing.”
Following the conversation, Hughes walked Jen back to her car, bound for some grocery shopping.
“We’re just starting to do everything,” she said. “I took her to the dentist yesterday.”
Ruiz said that Jen is showing promise as a guide dog.
“Jen is a lovely little dog,” she said. “I think she’s looking great.”
Those who are unable to take on the responsibility of raising puppies can always volunteer as puppy-sitters, Ruiz said.
“They have to come to meetings because they have to understand how to handle the dogs,” she said. “Then they go through the training process just like a puppy-raiser. They have to go through the application process just like a puppy-raiser. And then, when we feel they’re ready, then we’ll start giving them puppies to babysit.”
Local students in FFA (the Future Farmers of America) have participated in the club, Ruiz said.
“We have a program through Bret Harte (high school) right now, which is really cool,” she said. “The FFA adviser there works with us. In fact, one of our puppy-raisers last year used her puppy-raising project as her Supervised Agricultural Experience and she went to state actually. And she’s on her way again.”
Aside from bimonthly meetings, the club members also go on special outings once a month, Ruiz said. The group has taken Amtrak and BART trains to San Francisco and spent the day in the city, gone to the Concours d’Elegance at Ironstone Vineyards, and will travel to a Stockton Heat hockey game later this month.
“We do a lot of fun things as a group,” Ruiz said.
Since GDB was founded in 1942, more than 14,000 teams have graduated. There are currently about 2,200 teams active in the field.
For more information on GDB, call 800-295-4050 or visit guidedogs.com.
Those interested in talking to Hughes about her experience (or in need of a personal chef) can contact her at email@example.com.