The siren screamed and lights flashed on the parked police car as the teenagers walked their dogs around the vehicle several times. Like a round of doggie musical chairs, the pups stepped haltingly, expectantly but quietly, obediently.
The challenging drill at the Pineville police station left their handlers pleased, proud and praising their pooches. There will be much more of that feeling as these puppy raiser volunteers prepare the pets for a life of service: The pups will become companions for visually impaired people through the group Southeastern Guide Dogs.
Maria Nielsen was one of the dozen or so who got out of a warm bed on a recent cold, drizzly Saturday morning to subject themselves and their dogs to the exercises. As bystanders fixated on the puppies irresistible faces, Nielsen, a homeschooled 14-year-old, talked about the people who will benefit most from them.
I know two blind people in Columbia, she said. Theres this one lady, she likes to go hiking. Shes an outdoors person. Without a dog she cant really do that.
So she has her dog that takes her hiking or wherever she wants to go. They dont have to sit in their house all day, and they also get a little friend for when things get tough.
Maria said shes been working with her dog, Junee, for about two months. The black Labrador retriever, her second as a puppy raiser, is no less a commitment than the first a substantial investment of time, energy and love.
Raisers care for and train the 9- to 11-week-old dogs for 12 to 16 months at the raisers homes. They attend twice-a-month meetings, exposures (such as Saturdays) or obedience sessions, and follow the strict guidelines of a 100-plus-page puppy training manual. And they act as educators/ambassadors for Palmetto, Fla.-based Southeastern Guide Dogs to the public. (If a puppy raiser is younger than 18, the dog is the legal responsibility of the parent or guardian.) At the end of the training period, raisers return the dogs to Southeastern for formal harness training.
Food and travel expenses are the primary expenses for volunteers; the program pays for vet bills and heartworm prevention. The human cost is in time, patience and training.
We go over lots of obedience commands at home, Maria said. I take her to the store, and she goes everywhere with me. Its important for her socialization.
The family helps a little bit, too. My mom takes her everywhere. Shes my secretary and chauffeur.
Quinn Schneider, 14, also shares his duties primarily with 12-year-old brother Ethan. When they took on their first future guide dog, black Labrador Kajsa (which means blessed in Swedish), they learned quickly that its a different pet-raising experience.
We have to make sure shes not barking or whining, said Quinn, who goes to Woodlawn School in Davidson. So when shes home, if she starts barking, we have to tell her no noise. ... Out in public, we have to socialize her a lot and take her out to all the places we go so that she can have the experiences and know what to do when shes in a new situation and not be surprised by anything.
The boys and other raisers have noticed an obvious transformation when their dog is wearing its training cape, which must be on at all times in public. Its similar to the change in demeanor and behavior that a person might experience when he or she puts on a uniform.
When were at home and she doesnt have the cape on and is interacting with the other dogs we have, shes all crazy and running around and jumping, Quinn said. But then when its time to go to work and we put the cape on her, she settles right down and is just ready to work.
The teens appreciate the level of discipline thats a hallmark of the training. Jessica Fish, a 17-year-old junior at Northwest School of the Arts whos raising a black Lab named Sukey, noted, Were not supposed to treat-train them when the dogs obey a command.
We say good girl or praise her. Its based on positive reinforcement, not negative reinforcement.
Even with all of the hard work and responsibility, some raisers say the hardest part of the job is returning the pet to Southeastern Guide Dogs when the organization deems training to be complete.
Molly Werder, 16, has had her Labrador-golden retriever mix named Inspire for a year; she and her twin, Sam, have grown accustomed to the dog going everywhere with them.
Were just about done with her, and its the first one well be giving up, said Molly, a Myers Park High junior.
Itll be sad, but I know that shes going to help somebody. You get letters every once in awhile about how theyre doing, and volunteers are invited to a Puppy Raiser Day in which they can meet the dogs new owner.
Shes seen evidence that the heartache is worthwhile: My mom works with a man who has a fully trained one. Watching him is so great, because they help him so much.
Maria Nielsen agrees that giving up the dog is hard, but just the feeling of independence you can give somebody is so awesome.
Many get over their dog withdrawal pains by taking on another puppy. Though shes only 23, Southeastern Charlotte-area coordinator Rebecca Hall has been a puppy raiser six times over 10 years.
You know that theyre not yours to begin with, and you know they have a higher calling that they need to help someone else. ... When you see your bouncy, crazy puppy turn into a competent guide dog leading someone else, its all worth it.
Hall is impressed with the kids devotion to the program, which in some cases includes fundraising. The Schneider boys are raising money in hopes of being able to sponsor and name a dog, which costs $3,500, Hall said. Sponsoring and fundraising events help pay for the dogs medical bills.
Overall, its a really good experience, Ethan Schneider said. Its really good, helping out people who dont have the eyesight or cant do what you can do.