Hosting Puppies For the Blind

Maggie Weir with a Leader Dog.

When Kerry Weir was an eighth grader at Southern Door Middle School in 1987, she decided to raise a puppy for the Leader Dogs for the Blind Program as a 4-H project. She had no idea that her one-year commitment would be the beginning of a family tradition now in its 24th year.

Her sister, Katy, raised another puppy two years later, and when that dog was ready to go back to Rochester, MN for formal training, their parents, Maggie and Jeff, brought home the first of the 18 puppies they’ve raised.

From the first, Keeva, to the current, Kibble, all 18 names have begun with the letter K, and Maggie can reel them off in order in less than five seconds.

Maggie Weir says puppy hosting is a wonderful opportunity for retirees, since it’s a one-year commitment, rather than the eight to ten years that would be required for a dog they owned.

“Also,” she said, “if they plan a trip, they can drop out of the program for a year and request another puppy when they return. The hardest thing is giving up a dog when it’s ready for formal training. First-time host families think that won’t be difficult, because they know the dog is going to provide a wonderful service, but when it’s time to say goodbye, there are often tears.”

The Leader Dog program began in an old farmhouse north of Detroit in 1939 as a project of the Lions Club, still a major supporter. There are several other programs in the country that provide dogs to give blind persons the independence they thought they’d lost forever, but Leader Dogs for the Blind is the only one that trains dogs to assist individuals who are both blind and deaf. Since 1939, the program has trained more than 12,500 dogs and their new owners, a process that today costs $35,000 per dog. Purebred Labradors, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds and mixes of these breeds can serve as guide dogs. Like the puppies who will become guide dogs, the breeding stock live with host families, who commit to keeping them throughout their breeding life and to caring for their puppies for six weeks.

For the past 18 years, Weir has been the Puppy Program Counselor for Northeastern Wisconsin, an area that stretches north to the Michigan line and south to Sheboygan. It is a joint project of the Door County 4-H and District 17-B2 Lions Clubs. Since 1987, 296 dogs from this area have been turned in to Leader Dog for the Blind, with 170 becoming guide dogs. Of the rest, 12 were used as breeding stock, four are now in training and 109 had a “career change” – not a bad percentage. Weir said that about half of the dogs raised for the program are found to be not quite up to its rigorous standards. In these cases, the dogs either find other work, such as “drug sniffers” with police or customs departments, or may be returned as pets to the families that raised them.

The Leader Dogs for the Blind program is supported entirely by donations. There is no charge for the 26-day training class for new guide dog owners or for the dogs they receive. Host families assume all costs associated with caring for puppies for a year as they teach them basic obedience, housebreak them, and socialize them by taking them into the community on a regular basis. Weir’s dog Kibble accompanies her to her job as head curator at the Door County Museum in Sturgeon Bay, spending time in a spacious cage near the front entrance. At seven months, she demonstrates her obedience skills, patiently “staying” until given the OK to attack the bowl of food in front of her.

Fourteen puppies are now being raised in the Northeastern Wisconsin area, and there are 15 families – all repeat hosts – on the waiting list for new puppies. To date, 124 of the locally-raised puppies have been placed as guide dogs in 26 states and the District of Columbia, while 46 have gone to ten foreign countries, including two that Weir raised who are now working in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Santiago, Chile. Bob and Jane Goggins of Sturgeon Bay, now raising Barley, their 17th dog, are the only other host family in Door County.

All the host families and their dogs attend mandatory monthly meetings. “I don’t need to see the people,” Weir said with a laugh, “but I do need to see the dogs.”

Those interested in hosting a Leader Dog puppy can call Maggie Weir at 920.743.9561. They’re encouraged to attend one of the host family meetings before making up their mind. Those interested in being evaluated as a Leader Dog Owner may contact the program at 248.651.9011.

Pet A Leaderdog?

Probably not

Maggie Weir, who heads the program in northeastern Wisconsin that raises puppies for Leader Dogs for the Blind, says you should never pet a Leader Dog without asking permission from its owner. And when you ask, you shouldn’t be surprised if the answer is no.

She stresses that this is not because the owner is unfriendly, but because the dog is working and should not be distracted. It’s responsible for its owner’s safety and must give its full attention to this job. A Leader Dog that begins to enjoy attention from others is no longer concentrating on its responsibility.

“It’s unfortunate,” Maggie says, “that some people don’t respect this. A former Door County resident with a Leader Dog had ‘pinpoint’ vision, enabling him to see a bit directly in front of him. He said that occasionally when he asked people not to pet his dog, they did it anyway, assuming he couldn’t see them.”

Graduate Leader Dogs are, by law, allowed access anywhere the public is permitted – a restaurant, for example, but not the restaurant kitchen. Puppies in training can be identified by their blue jackets or scarves that say “Future Leader Dog.” People hosting these puppies always ask permission before entering a restaurant or other place where animals aren’t usually admitted. The answer, Maggie says, is nearly always yes.