by Eli Lechien
About the author: Eli Lechien is a senior in high school from West Lafayette, IN. He enjoys math, science, weight lifting, ping pong, and trying new things. He plans to pursue a career in chemical engineering after attending Purdue University. Eli wrote this profile in conjunction with Peggy Rouse as an assignment in a senior composition class taught by Kathy Nimmer, a Guiding Eyes graduate who is partnered with Nacho, a yellow lab guide dog.
Becoming a puppy raiser has had a profoundly positive impact on Peggy Rouse’s life. Her decision to take on this important job has taught her a lot about communicating with animals, helped fill an empty nest and introduced her to a lot of new friends. Peggy Rouse is a technical writer from the Capital Region of New York state. When she isn’t working, she raises service dog puppies for Guiding Eyes for the Blind.
The first service dog Peggy ever had the privilege of getting to know personally was a black Labrador retriever named Maggie. Her handler, who was born blind, was Peggy’s co-teacher at the New Paltz University campus school. Peggy was impressed at how well her colleague and the dog worked together as a team and it seemed as if the two of them had always been together. Everyone at the school loved Maggie — she was the perfect dog. Peggy said that if her students had cell phones back then, no doubt they would have taken tons of pictures so we could see Maggie on the playground, Maggie on a school bus, Maggie in the cafeteria, Maggie at the theatre…this dog went everywhere.
At the end of the year, Peggy was invited to a retirement party for a different co-worker. When someone asked the new retiree what he was going to do with his extra time, he said he’d been thinking about raising a guide dog puppy like Maggie. Peggy refers to this as a “lightbulb” moment. It suddenly occurred to her that her blind co-worker probably did not know Maggie when she was a puppy. The dog who was so well-behaved that she could go anywhere hadn’t just magically grown up, ready to lead someone through a busy parking lot!
Although Peggy had no idea what was involved in raising a guide dog puppy, the idea of helping someone else out by raising a service animal stuck in her head. It could be because when she was a kid, she saw first-hand how compassionate acts carried out by strangers could make a huge difference.
You see, when she was 13, Peggy’s father was killed in a plane crash and neighbors stepped in to help her mom run her father’s business. When she retold the event to me, Peggy said, “Even back then as a kid, I knew there was something special about the way people interrupted their own lives to help my mom after the crash.” Although she would not connect this early part of her life to puppy raising for many years, it’s likely that this is when the first seed was first planted.
The final factor that propelled Peggy’s decision to become a puppy raiser also involved an airplane crash. On September 11, 2001, three planes from Boston were hijacked by terrorists and used as weapons while the entire nation watched on television. On September 12, Fred Rogers appeared on the Today Show and was asked how parents should explain the terrorist attack to children.
Mr. Rogers had the perfect answer. He said, “When things are scary, look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Peggy took the advice to heart. As she watched recovery efforts, she learned more about the service dogs who were helping at ground zero and remembered the retirement party years ago when she first realized that Maggie had a puppy raiser. That’s when the last penny dropped. Maggie’s raiser had been a helper. Peggy decided she wanted to be a helper too.
The timing was right. Peggy’s kids were grown. She was working from home and was in a good position to raise a puppy for someone else. Soon after, she contacted Guiding Eyes for the Blind and signed up for classes that would teach her how to become a puppy sitter. A few months later, she made the commitment to raise a puppy of her own. Since then, Peggy has had the honor of raising five more puppies for Guiding Eyes.
One effect that puppy raising has had on Peggy’s life is that it has taught her a lot about communicating with animals. She said, “Canines don’t use words, but they are excellent communicators.” Peggy also noted that it takes time to learn how to understand each dog’s non-verbal communication style, and the classes she attended every other week for puppy raising were a big help.
Peggy stated that “Raising a puppy is like raising a baby from cradle-to-college at warp speed. The puppies go through a lot of the same stages that toddlers do, but the difference is that it only takes a year for a Labrador to become full-grown.”
Peggy says it’s always a proud moment when a dog she’s raised leaves Guiding Eyes for the Blind with their new handler. There is great satisfaction in knowing that the dog is going to be doing an important job.
Although each goodbye is emotional, Peggy said that Guiding Eyes for the Blind handles this problem brilliantly by ending every graduation ceremony the exact same way. At the conclusion of the last speech, just as everyone is about to stand up and get ready to say goodbye, a door will open at the back of the room and a Guiding Eyes staff member will walk through the audience and introduce everyone to a couple of small, adorable puppies.
“Yes,” Peggy said, “there is always a silver lining when you see your dog leave graduation with someone else — you know you can always raise again!”