A couple dozen doggie lovers gathered in the Fresno heat in the shopping center off of Herndon Avenue and Highway 99. Their collection of Golden Retrievers and Labradors sniffed and batted at one another playfully under the shade of a pop-up tent on a makeshift carpet.
The puppy truck was coming — and in it would be three new pals for five eager families.
“It’s here!” a few in the group squealed as a bus pulled into the parking lot. The vehicle featured a huge photo of six adorable puppies hanging their paws over the words “Guide Dogs for the Blind.”
Guide Dogs for the Blind, a national nonprofit, has a puppy kennel in San Rafael. When pups reach 8 weeks old, they’re driven in the bus down the 99 and dropped off to families in various cities.
Candie Wasson leads a group of those families under the organization Far-Sighted Puppies with a Plan, which raises pups to become guide dogs for the visually impaired.
Wasson, who was waiting for her 36th puppy to arrive, will co-raise the dog for a little over a year with the Schneider family of Fresno.
Guide Dogs for the Blind has been around for about 75 years, and Far-Sighted Puppies with a Plan was formed in the mid-’60s, Wasson said. The group, made up of more than two dozen families, is currently raising 16 puppies to become guide dogs.
“A few years ago we had four, so we’ve grown a lot lately,” Wasson said.
The growth is expected; after all, who can resist the cute face of a Golden Retriever or Labrador puppy?
No one, based on the group’s reaction as each puppy was carried down the steps from the air-conditioned bus to an awaiting sea of eager arms and coos of “Aww!”
Guide Dogs for the Blind representatives played a little game with each of the new raisers. Before they could hold their new puppy, they had to guess his or her name. The name of the first puppy to come off of the truck started with the letter T.
“Her first name is named after something you might hang on the Christmas tree, just like the sparkle in her eye,” the puppy-bringer hinted.
“Tinsel!” shouted Jillian Schneider, reaching for the little golden ball of fur.
Next came Theodore, who will be raised by Mary Flynn and her daughter Brenna Flynn. The last pup to come out was Debra, who will be co-raised by two Clovis families — the Logans and the Seras.
The bond was instant, as the puppies gleefully licked their owners’ faces.
I’m so excited to get a puppy I can’t keep.
Candie Wasson, leader of Fresno-based Far-Sighted Puppies with a Plan
In the coming months, those bonds will strengthen as the volunteers teach the little doggies how to behave.
“We have them a little over a year,” Wasson explained. “So we housebreak them, we teach them their name … Basically, we teach them how to be a good dog, and then we socialize them.”
The dogs go wherever their raiser goes, whether it’s to work, school, the mall, the movie theater or even a Grizzlies game.
The minimum age for raising a Far-Sighted Puppy with a Plan is 9, volunteers said.
“My son raised our first guide dog when he was in sixth grade,” said Judy Logan. Debra is her 22nd dog. “After he did one, he said ‘man, that’s a lot of work.’ So my daughter, three years younger, took over.”
The kids were allowed to take their dogs to Fresno Christian Schools, where the pups sat at their feet in the classroom.
“A lot of the schools, I think, are really good about that,” Logan said. “It sort of depends on the administrators and if they understand the program. It’s not like a regular puppy, really. We have always had a lot of support. It’s a big confidence builder for kids.”
Workplaces are typically fine with the Far-Sighted Puppies with a Plan, said Dale Sera, Debra’s co-raiser. His wife, Carol, takes their third Puppy with a Plan, Glow, to work with her at Fresno State.
“They really love her there,” he said. “It’s a great experience for her, too, to go to all of the social events. Because that’s what they’re going to have to do as guide dogs, is to go to public places, restaurants, go into the theater, have kids come up to them and know how to respond.”
After more than a year of cuddles and fun, it’s hard to let go of a little furry friend you’ve become attached to, volunteers said.
It takes a village to raise a puppy.
Dale Sera, Clovis resident who has raised three puppies to become Guide Dogs for the Blind
“When they’re a little over a year, 15 or 16 months, they go back up to Guide Dogs and they’ll put them in a harness and teach them how to guide,” Wasson said.
The Seras’ first two dogs became Guide Dogs for the Blind, but they still keep in contact with them through photos from their partners.
“You always shed some tears because you fall in love with them and then you have to let them go,” Sera said. “But it’s almost like sending your kids off to college. They’re going to find their career. We just pray they’re going to end up in the right place for somebody. That’s one of the things we’ve learned, is that it’s not for us, it’s for someone else.”
Some dogs don’t become guide dogs, if, for instance, they don’t pass a hearing test or for some other medical reason, volunteers explained. In that case, they can go into a different service for another nonprofit or be kept by their raiser.
But the hope is that each will grow up to become a guide dog for a visually impaired partner.
“It’s a pretty cool program,” Wasson said. “I’m so excited to get a puppy I can’t keep.”
The dogs can end up living in different parts of the country, based on the need, Sera said. His first two dogs now live in Ohio and Iowa.
“You feel very rewarded, especially when you see the bond they’ve made with them,” he said. “You go, ‘this was the right thing to do.’ ”
Logan said her children, Joey and Kristina Logan, also keep in touch with the dogs they’ve raised.
“For my kids, learning the kind of the sacrifice, not only of the time and effort it takes to raise them, but you also have to give them up … You see the full picture, because we still have friends who have our dogs and they got to see the end result and maintain those relationships,” she said. “Just the things they learn through the program and the people they come in contact with has been really great for both of my kids. It’s just a different side of life that you don’t usually get to see. It’s taught my kids an awful lot.”
As a nonprofit, Guide Dogs for the Blind relies on donations and provides medical treatment along with heartworm, flea and tick preventatives for the puppies. The organization also provides each dog with a green “guide dog in training” jacket and collar.
The volunteers also have unlimited support from other families in Far-Sighted Puppies with a Plan.
“Your club here is like a family,” Sera said. “It takes a village to raise a puppy.”