By JENNIFER HLAD
Cody, a yellow Labrador puppy, looks up at Joanne Wilson, not pictured. Wilson is raising Cody for Fidos for Freedom, an assistance dog training organization. (Photo: Jennifer Hlad)
LAUREL, Md. (April 30, 2010)—Joanne Wilson loves puppies. Really, really loves puppies.
Even when a puppy leaves a puddle by the stairs. Even when he wants to go out at 2 a.m. Even when he sneaks in, steals her shoe and then averts his eyes when she catches him holding it between his paws.
She lovingly teaches each puppy to sit, stay and fetch the newspaper. She trains them to bring her the metal food bowl, and not to eat food that doesn't belong to them. She tethers them to her belt loop so they get used to being around a person and anticipating her needs. Then, after about a year, she gives them away.
Wilson is a puppy raiser for Fidos for Freedom, an organization that raises and trains service dogs for people who have difficulty getting around, and hearing dogs for the deaf and hard of hearing.
She usually takes a puppy home when it is between 9 and 12 weeks old. She is responsible for housebreaking the dog, taking him to the vet and to weekly obedience classes and getting him used to being around people. At about a year old, the dog will go to live with a trainer.
It was Wilson's coworkers at the Department of Agriculture who convinced her to volunteer. They were former directors of Fidos for Freedom, and they knew the organization needed puppy raisers.
She had a dog growing up, a long-haired mutt. But he didn't know how to do anything. Raising a puppy to be an assistance dog—even for a few months—seemed daunting.
Before she agreed, she went to the Fidos training center one Saturday morning to see the dogs. She was amazed at how well-behaved the dogs were. They didn't pull on their leashes, jump up on tables or knock people down. They would even lay on the floor under a table full of food without whining.
Then she talked to the clients who rely on the dogs: People in wheelchairs who need a dog to bring the paper in every morning, to turn on the light and shut the door. People who can't hear someone calling their name, or the fire alarm screaming in the middle of the night. She saw how a dog can change someone's life.
"I had no idea what a dog could learn, how much you could trust a dog," Wilson said.
She took a deep breath and said yes.
The first puppy was 6 months old when she brought him home, already housebroken. He was an adorable black Labrador with the sweetest personality, who loved to rub up against her, climb up into her lap and snuggle.
But Wilson was terrified. She felt like a new mother again: She wanted to do everything right, but had no idea what "right" was.
The first few months were as much a learning process for Wilson as they were for the puppy. One day she was walking him on a long leash, trying to teach him to heel. He saw a squirrel or a bird and took off. But when he got to the end of the leash, he slipped and fell.
When he scrambled back up, he was limping. Badly.
Wilson was devastated. What had she done to break this beautiful dog?
He was still limping when they got home. The vet said he needed surgery. And even though he said the problem was a congenital defect, that it wasn't Wilson's fault, she felt responsible.
He came out of the surgery well, happy and sweet as ever. Wilson took him home and started back on the training regimen, and soon he was ready for the trainer. But he didn't make it as a service dog. Turns out, his bladder was too small. He couldn't hold it long enough to travel on a cross-country plane trip or stay next to someone all day in an office.
The trainers reassured Wilson, telling her it wasn't her fault. She tried again.
The second puppy, Chase, was a yellow Labrador. She trained him to go to the door when he needed to go out and to sleep in his crate at night by himself without crying.
She told him he was a good dog when he did what she asked, and yanked his choke chain if he didn't. Sit. Stay. Off the couch. Down.
She walked him by the high school when the boys were playing lacrosse, so he could get used to hearing the shouts and whistles without pulling her arm out of the socket to join the game. She walked him by the park when the children were shrieking and running, and took him to the frequent parades near her Laurel home. She taught him not to eat the candy thrown on the ground for children.
On Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings, she would take him to the Fidos for Freedom training center. One of those nights, a client accidentally dropped her cane on the floor, out of reach. The woman thought Chase could pick it up, but Wilson wasn't so sure.
Still, she figured it was worth a try.
"Chase, fetch!" Wilson said.
The yellow puppy ambled over, picked up the cane and returned it.
Something clicked. Wilson realized she couldn't break these dogs after all. The puppies are born with the right abilities and the desire to please. She just needed to encourage the skills she wanted and discourage the behaviors she didn't.
Wilson's daughter was in fourth grade and her son in first when she took in that first puppy. Now her daughter has graduated from college and her son is a Marine.
There have been a lot of puppies since then, so many Wilson has lost count.
The current puppy is a 55-pound, 6-month old yellow Labrador named Cody. Two months ago, he was so round and white he resembled a seal cub. But he's growing—and learning fast.
He isn't quite housebroken, though. Not long ago, when they were playing hide and seek, she jumped out of her hiding place and scared him. She greeted a dog and a puddle.
At first, he was easily distracted at training classes. But last week, they did a drill where the dogs are supposed to "stay" on one side of the room while the people walk to the other. One by one, the people call their dog's name. Cody stayed still until his name was called.
Joe Swetnam, executive director of Fidos for Freedom, calls Wilson "an absolute treasure."
"I try to get Joanne to talk to every potential puppy raiser who comes in here," Swetnam said. "When she shares what she does with people. ... It's hard for people to understand how you can give up a puppy, and she explains it very well. She is a gem."
Fidos is the only organization in Maryland affiliated with Assistance Dogs International. They have graduated five or six assistance dogs a year for the past few years, Swetnam said.
"Everybody worries that they're going to do something wrong," Wilson said. "I convince them that won't happen. There's nothing that a well-meaning person can do to a dog that is so wrong or bad. ... And I just tell them it's a good way to have a dog in your life some of the time and then be free. "
Of course, there is some frustration involved with raising all those puppies. Wilson said she sometimes wants to yell, "Do you think I'm stupid?" but mainly, she laughs it off.
One dog had a habit of digging around in the trash, so when she heard noises coming from the trash can, she went to check on him. He heard her coming and backed away. When she got there he was standing perfectly still, a few feet away from the can as though nothing had happened—with a butter wrapper stuck to his nose.
"The one thing that hits me, I am constantly surprised at how much like human toddlers they are," she said.
It's too early to tell if Cody will make a good hearing or service dog. He's showing good progress. Sometimes he stops pushing his metal food bowl around the kitchen and picks it up to give to her. His attention span is getting longer and longer. And if Wilson leaves the room for too long, he comes looking for her.
After so many puppies, Wilson knows how good dependent Labradors can be for the ego. She knows she could learn to be a trainer, but she doesn't want to give up the fun of having a puppy in the house, no matter how many accidents she has to clean up. And she realizes it's not about being an expert. A few treats and a lot of love can go a long way.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.