Susan Zabillago of Rancho Cordova is a puppy raiser for the nonprofit Guide Dogs for the Blind.
The job, of course, involves critters that are cute and cuddly. But Zabillago said puppy raising is time-consuming and ends in the heartbreak of having to say goodbye.
"The biggest question I get all the time is how do you give the puppy up?" Zabillago said. "Personally, I tell them that someone needs the puppy more than I do. It's still hard each time. It doesn't get easier."
In Manteca, a truck driver dressed as Santa Claus on Saturday delivered 10 puppies to host families and other volunteers gathered at a shopping center. These dedicated volunteers will spend a year raising them to enable people who are blind live more independent lives through their partnerships with guide dogs.
Seven of the puppies were given to Stanislaus PAWS, or Puppies Assisting With Sight. The club has 26 members raising prospective guide dogs. The others went home with families from San Joaquin, Fresno and Mariposa counties.
"We always need raisers who are committed," said Celeste Butrym, field representative for the group in Northern California.
Jim Russell of Guide Dogs for the Blind said the event reminds him of what the holidays are about – giving and sharing.
Cathy Shinnamon of Carmichael said she was looking for a way to give back and decided the Guide Dogs for the Blind program was a good fit. Shinnamon is in the first month of learning to be a puppy raiser.
"It's quite extensive," she said. "There is a puppy raising manual that's 200-plus pages. I had absolutely no idea."
In Manteca, Amber May, a pre-veterinary student at the University of California, Davis, got acquainted with Maybelle, a Labrador retriever that was soon licking her face.
During winter break, May will house train the dog at her parents' Modesto home before returning to school.
May previously raised a 9-month-old yellow Labrador retriever while attending UC Davis, often taking the dog to class and the gym.
"She's a nice shadow," May said. "The students always say they miss their pets at home."
Puppies at Guide Dogs for the Blind of San Rafael are bred at the group's Bay Area campus. The nonprofit group relies on volunteers like the Mays to provide basic obedience and social training. The group looks for three desired traits – intelligence, temperament and the ability to work.
Once the host families complete their work and the pups are 15 months old, the service animals return to San Rafael for another three months of training.
The dogs must be able to learn remarkable skills in guide dog training. They are taught to help a blind person find the button at a crosswalk and cross the street or guide a student to a seat in a classroom.
Stanislaus PAWS leader Carrie Mesches of Modesto said if a dog graduates and is matched with a blind partner who is a college student, it has already been to school and knows the routine.
They also learn to help their partners find an empty seat on a bus or in a conference room. Most importantly, they learn intelligent disobedience, meaning they will disobey mistaken orders to walk into traffic or step off a subway platform.
Turlock resident Kirsten Jasek-Rysdahl and her daughter Annika are first-time handlers who took home a warm bundle named Chevelle.
Annika, a freshman at Pitman High School, plans to write columns for the school newspaper about her experience raising the dog. "I wanted to do this for a long time," she said. "My mom finally gave me permission."
IN THE KNOW
People who are interested in becoming a volunteer puppy raiser should contact Guide Dogs for the Blind at (800) 295-4050, or visit www.guidedogs.com.