WAYLAND, MICH. - There aren't many things cuter than puppies. Stumbling and bumbling, and napping their way through their first few weeks of life.
But, one group of precious pups are taking their first steps to becoming more than just a family pet. They are in the process of becoming future assistance dogs.
"One of the things that breeding host homes are doing are letting the puppy be a puppy." Mike Hanna is the training manager for PAWS With A Cause and says every step of the process is important, including the breeder homes. ”They start that real early stuff. How do I interact with a human being? How do I get fed my food?"
Volunteers host a mom through her pregnancy and raise the pups until they are 8 weeks old. Then, the pups are handed over to PAWS and then their foster moms and dads.
Health Reporter Val Lego is raising a Paws With a Cause puppy named CJ. She is a 10-month-old yellow Lab. Val has had her since she was 10-weeks-old. CJ has her own Facebook page, CJtheWZZM13Puppy, where you can follow along in her journey.
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Some foster parents are newbies, others have raised as many as 16 -- but everyone goes to puppy kindergarten for fundamental training with the puppies the entire year they raise them.
While it may seem like a lot of work, they do get to be a puppy with lots of fun and lots of love. Which is why it's so very hard for puppy raisers to have to say goodbye.
“We're turning in 16." Diana Rottiers says it never gets any easier, “As much as you know it's the best thing for the dog or the future forever person, it's really hard. There's a piece of your heart in every dog."
On turn in day, owners get one last hug, before saying good bye to their pup.
It may make you wonder how Diana can do it all over and over again.
“Always having a vibrant puppy and working with and working towards a goal, and seeing what they do when they go on to improve someone's life. We put a lot of love into the dog and that's what the dog needs in order to be well rounded and ready for a life of service."
She says knowing her pups are giving someone the gift of independence makes it all worth it. "Some work with people on wheelchairs, and one is a seizure response dog. We do it out of love and that's the best reason to do it."
From here, the pups move on to prison. Yes, prison.
"The prison works out wonderful for us because it is a very regimented environment," says Hanna. "There's a lot of control over what happens with the dog’s day to day."
Hanna goes on to explain how Paws has partnered with prisons in Michigan, training inmates to train the dogs.
The pups live in a cell with their assigned inmate for four months before returning to PAWS for more training. "They do testing once they come out of the prison to monitor how they are changing and how the techniques and the protocols are impacting the dogs and if we're getting what we want," he says.
During their time in prison, Hanna says the pups begin to develop their talent, so to speak, "The closer you can match a dog with a job, that's just what it's supposed to do, the less training there is and the less up keep there is to maintaining the behaviors."
By now, the pups are between 14 and 18 months old. They stay at Paws for six more months while they fine tune their training.
"You have to match the dog to the environment. You have to match the dog to the job.
"Some people fly, some people have balance issues and they need a dog that's very steady and always with them," explains Hanna. "Some people drop lots of things and some dogs are better retrievers than others.
"The trainer's responsibility is to look at the dog and choose a technique that is suited to the personality of the dog -- the temperament of the dog -- the learning style of the dog, and then they are matched to the correct environment and the correct job to the correct client."
When they're finally ready, they get matched with their client.
“I think it's like falling in love. You fall in love right away." Ashley Wiseman is picking up her assistance dog Raina.
"Raina will be able to pick up objects that I've dropped. She can also open and close doors. She'll be able to help me remove a jacket or coat. She'll be able to help with certain positioning of my body."
But, having Raina is about more than independence, "There's always that companionship even in those mundane day to day moments and then the sense of security that comes with knowing that I am not stuck in unexpected situations."
Ashley says it's also about having a new best friend, "I think one of the things I'm really excited about bringing Raina home is just to get to know her and who she is and her unique personality traits what her favorite toys are."
So, Raina moves on to her forever home with her client.
The work life expectancy of a PAWS assistance dog is about 8 to 10 years after which they'll be retired.
Paws With A Cause is always looking for loving homes willing to volunteer to be a breeding host home or a puppy raiser. No experience is required, just a lot of love.
If you're interested in helping to be a part of giving someone their independence, please contact Paws by clicking here.
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