Wanted: Foster homes for future guide dogs

A clumsy swirl of black lab and golden retriever puppies skitter across the wooden floors of their temporary home in rural Ottawa. It might not look like it right now, but these pups are destined for a life of service.

Puppies born in rural Ottawa need to be socialized for 12-18 months

Jessie Thornton of Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind spoke with the CBC's Alan Neal about how the organization trains its dogs. The process includes getting the dogs ready to live with the foster parents who will help complete their training. 1:24

A clumsy swirl of black lab and golden retriever puppies skitter across the wooden floors of their temporary home in rural Ottawa. It might not look like it right now, but these pups are destined for a life of service.

The Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind, which bred the puppies at the canine development centre in Manotick, are looking for foster homes for each of the three-month-olds before their formal training. 

"It's a 12- to 18-month commitment," said Jessie Thornton, who helps train and care for the puppies inside the organization's wide, brick home.

While they wait for foster families to take them away, the little pups spend their days playing and training.

This three-month-old golden retriever is one of seven puppies waiting for a foster home to kick off its guide dog training. (Miriam Katawazi/CBC )

They are taught basic skills such as where to go to the bathroom and also get used to different kinds of floors and surfaces.

"They are kind of like toddlers," Thornton said.

Jessie Thornton, a canine development co-ordinator, helps care for the puppies on behalf of the Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind. (Miriam Katawazi/CBC)

Could you be a foster owner?

Volunteer foster owners help raise a puppy by teaching it basic obedience and socialization before the pup enters formal guide dog training.

The owner, who must live in the Ottawa area, is expected to take the puppy everywhere with them, whether they go to work, the grocery store, the movies or even to dinner.

These future guide dogs get training that helps them get used to different surfaces and floors before they head out to their foster homes. (Miriam Katawazi/CBC )

"A huge part of [the] socialization aspect is going out and just living your average, everyday life," Thornton said.

"[It's] to help prepare them for what they are going to go on to do."

There's a pile of puppies in Manotick in search of good homes... but just temporarily. 8:12

An inevitable separation 

After its time at the foster home, the dog is then taken away to train formally at the national training centre. 

It takes almost two years from its birth before a puppy can be considered a fully-trained guide dog.

Toys are scattered across the canine development centre, where the Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind wean and raise their puppies. (Miriam Katawazi/CBC)

Sometimes, after owners have spent countless hours with their furry companion, the separation between the foster owner and puppy can be difficult, Thornton said. 

This bundle of golden fur is on its way to becoming a guide dog, but first it needs to be taken into a foster home for 12 to 18 months. (Miriam Katawazi/CBC)

"But you do have in the back of your mind what they are going to go on to to do, [that they are] really helping somebody have their independence," she said.

"It's very easy to not be selfish about it."

She said seeing the puppy grow up to be a guide dog and help someone become more independent is "very rewarding." 

The puppies either spend their time inside or outside the Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind's canine development centre in Manotick. (CBC)

Puppies don't all turn out

Not all puppies make the cut to become a guide dog, sometimes because they are too mellow or they can be easily spooked.

These dogs end up having a "career change" and are given to new owners.

There is a waiting list of people who want to take these puppies, Thornton ​said.

The puppies love to play with each other and those who visit their home in Manotick. (Miriam Katawazi/CBC)

"A good guide dog is a dog that's adaptable, confident and really willing to … form a partnership with somebody," she said.

"Some of them just let us know that it's not for them."

These five labrador retrievers spend most of their time playing with each other and training for their future as guide dogs. (CBC)

Around 70 per cent of the puppies that are bred and raised by the organization do end up become guide dogs, she said, which is helpful because many people in the province are waiting for one. 

"There are people losing their sight every day or [are] suffering from visual impairment everyday, so there is a constant demand."