Raising Service Puppies, a Labor of Love


Raising service dog puppies is one of the best and hardest volunteer gigs out there for dog lovers. You are responsible for laying that perfect foundation of training, exposure, and teamwork with a puppy candidate, then it’s time to say goodbye after a year of spending every moment together. Puppy raiser Ashley Wilt says it’s worth every heartache.

Ashley, who volunteers with Canine Companions for Independence, is getting ready for her fourth puppy Elijah, a Golden retriever and Labrador cross, to leave the nest for advanced training in California next month.  “The goodbyes are hard, but it is only one part of the journey.” Ashley shared “The months of love while raising the puppy and the years of pride after they graduate overshadows the bouts of sadness that are weaved in the middle.”

Meeting Winnie the Pooh

What goes into raising a service puppy? By the time a dog is ready to graduate to specialized training, they must know about 40 commands and be able to perform them perfectly, no matter where they are or what’s going on around them. That means special field trips like Elijah’s recent visit to Disney Land are a perfect way to test a dog’s focus. Distractions like food all over the floor, screaming children, crazy crowds, and characters in larger than life costumes are just some of the challenges facing a working dog. And judging by Ashley’s photos, Elijah handled every situation perfectly, which goes to show that their work together has been a big success.

Meeting Cinderella

“The goal of a puppy raiser is to raise a confident and well-adjusted puppy that will succeed in professional training and eventually have a future as a service dog.” Ashley told The Dog People “This is done by careful age-appropriate socialization throughout the puppy’s time with their raiser and the teaching of 30-40 commands. I approach every dog I have raised from a different perspective. Some dogs excel at certain things and struggle with others. Viewing each dog as an individual has helped me to give more support where they might need it. For example, one of the dogs I raised had a fear of the ice machine. I worked to build his confidence around it by giving him an ice cube whenever we passed by it. He learned pretty quickly that the ice machine was not so scary after all.”

Sitting pretty for a portrait

Ashley describes Elijah as extremely calm and cuddly, and she can’t wait to see what kind of work he will be doing after graduation. Canine Companions for Independence trains service dogs in a number of disciplines, depending on what type of work is the best fit for each dog’s unique spirit and temperament. Elijah’s future partner could be a veteran, a child or adult with special needs, a person with hearing challenges or mobility challenges, or he may partner with a facilitator who will bring him to hospitals, schools, or other situations where a furry and empathetic friend is always in need.

Puppy throwback

In addition to raising service puppies, Ashley also fosters dogs through a local shelter and is a full-time college student. Which means not only is she a busy lady, she can take her service dogs-in-training to school with her for more real-life training practice. If you’d like to find out more about raising a service puppy yourself, or to learn more about the kinds of work these dogs can do, stop by the CCI website for more information.

We wish you luck in your new life Elijah! We know you are destined for great things.

Be sure and follow Ashley on Instagram at Fostering Puppies to see more of Elijah and follow her next puppies adventures in learning too.

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