The puppies turned 5 weeks old on Friday, and that means that we spent the weekend transitioning to the next stage of their journey. On Tuesday, they will be on their way to the Duluth Federal Prison Camp where they will get approximately 5 weeks of training in all of the important skills like crate training, continued potty training, walking on leash, getting weaned from their mom, learning independence and being without their littermates, and much more!
Once that time is finished they come back to typically be placed in one of two foster homes; a puppy raiser home or a great start home.
If they are placed in a puppy raiser home, they will be raised by volunteers until they are approximately 2 years of age and then they get “called in” for final training with staff. As a previous puppy raiser, I can tell you that I personally dreaded the day when I received the letter in the mail saying that it was time for the dog in our home to graduate to final training! As happy as I was that I had been a part of something bigger than myself, I never like saying goodbye, so it takes a bit of time to adjust to that reality. You know the process when you get into volunteering, but somehow the time flies faster than you think and before you know it your heart is captured by the little furball from the beginning!
If they are selected to be in a “great start” home they are fostered for 8-12 weeks or more and they are placed in one of the prison programs affiliated with the organization. I have been a great start volunteer as well, and this volunteer opportunity is shorter term so that sometimes works better for some. They may get the chance as well to be rotated out of prison between 6-8 months of age to go into homes so that they get additional socialization and time for training to go into public places. People often ask me about the prison program and there are usually very definitive opinions about whether people think dogs being raised in prison should be an option. I have had the benefit of seeing the prison program firsthand and meeting some of the men in the puppy program, and I personally love that this option exists within the organization. The inmate handlers dedicate large portions of their day to training the puppies in their care; and while they are training the pups for the next part of their journey they learn life lessons themselves along the way that change how they think, interact and they gain confidence and tolerance! When I think of the lives that 1 dog changes during its journey getting to its client, I’m sometimes overwhelmed.
I also love the fact that there are many foster volunteer opportunities for people who want to foster dogs on the weekend to take prison dogs out into their homes and provide additional training while getting them out into the community. I think that this is sometimes the biggest misunderstandings regarding the prison program, that the dogs are in prison for 2 years straight without any additional training or foster opportunities, but that isn’t how this program works-at least at this organization.
Once they complete their puppy raising journey, then they go into final training with organization staff to learn the specifics of the job that they have shown an aptitude for. This could be mobility assist, hearing assist, seizure assist, diabetes assist or autism assist. How do they get their specific job? It has been explained to volunteers that during their final training they are introduced to a variety of opportunities and that they are chosen for their “career” based on what they are happiest doing and what they can do best. So, in essence, they choose their own career!
So, while these puppies are only 5 weeks old, I can’t help but ask myself what I think they might be good at in the future! Part of sending them off to the next step in their journey is that we get to write up “bios”/biographies on the puppies so that the inmates in Duluth can get an opportunity to know the particular attributes of the puppies that they will have for the next 5 or so weeks. These early descriptions can also be used once they get placed with their long term fosters/puppy raiser homes. I find it amazing how many of the traits that they have as such small puppies follow them into adulthood! I’ve had volunteers who have fostered pups I’ve whelped ask me about their puppy personalities and when I describe some of their characteristics they get excited and say “they STILL do that!!” Some of the personality traits that I have noticed with these litter pups are wonderfully individual and should provide the inmate handlers with much entertainment in the near future!
The next step for me? I get to wait with anticipation for Sugar to return to our home! She will go up with the puppies for the first two weeks as they are too young to be without her at this time. The inmate handlers will work on the weaning process and give her lots of snuggles and special time away from her growing (and biting) puppies. After two weeks she will return and start her own journey of getting back to life without the puppies, and we will get back to LBP-life before puppies. When kids grow up and leave they call it Empty Nest Syndrome…when puppies leave it feels a bit the same, but I call it “Empty Box Syndrome”! You get to readjust your schedule (that you forgot you ever had!) back to regular hours, getting to eat dinner with family, no taking weights, temperatures, giving medicines, cleaning whelping boxes, washing laundry…..
Then, the final step will be approximately 3 weeks after Sugar returns, when we get to go to the program building where the puppies return from Duluth! Breeder fosters and whelping homes get some time in the training room to get reacquainted with the puppies and love them up just a bit more before we say our final goodbyes. Then the time comes when they get placed that evening with their new volunteer families. During this process there are a lot of goodbyes, but there are also a lot of great hellos with anticipation and excitement for THEIR journey to start-and as much as we wish we didn’t have to let these bundles of joy go and we tell ourselves we could keep them all, we know that they need individualized attention and that we don’t have enough time in the day to give them what they need, what they deserve, and what they have waited for all of this time…..a foster family to call their own while they work their way through this life adventure.
Will there be tears? No doubt about it!! (I tear up just thinking about next Tuesday as I write this!) But with each litter I whelp, the process becomes more “predictable” and I am able to see the joy that I have received with this opportunity to raise a litter of puppies. Sugar has had 27 puppies that have started and continue to train in assistance/service dog organizations around the world, and yet she has no idea the contribution she has made towards giving others peace of mind and freedom that they dream of to make their lives just a bit easier! I think about the future graduation days of Sugar’s puppies, and when the first puppy from my first litter I whelped graduated this past February, I was able to see our efforts come full circle! I know that giving these puppies the best foundation that I possibly can while they are in my care indeed makes a difference for someone who doesn’t yet know that in 2-3 years their life will forever be changed by one special pup!