About the author: Ashley Rodriguez is a recent high school graduate from West Lafayette, Indiana. She enjoys taking photos and doing anything related to art. She plans to pursue a career in art history after attending Indiana University. Ashley wrote this profile in conjunction with Sharon Jollie 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.
According to Guiding Eyes for the Blind, the school places 170 guide dogs annually. However, many people forget the more than 1,400 volunteers it takes to make this possible. They dedicate their time and effort to raising guide dogs that have the potential to change the life of a blind person. Every volunteer has their own story and this is the story of puppy raiser, Sharon Jollie.
Sharon Jollie has lived in many different places throughout her life. She has adjusted to life in almost twenty different houses in six states and three countries. She worked hard to finish high school in just three years, graduating from high school in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba so she could return to the United States and go to college. She then went on to college to complete a degree in education. Since then, she married and had three kids who are maturing into competent adults. She has been teaching math at a community college near her home in Maryland for ten years. Her life changed when she decided to start puppy raising.
Sharon’s puppy raising story began with an ad in the local newspaper. Her youngest daughter had been asking for a pet for a long time, but while raising three children, Sharon and her husband believed a pet would add too many responsibilities to their busy lives. Since the youngest was now 14, she thought puppy raising would be perfect for their situation. The ad mentioned they would only keep the puppy for fourteen months which was enough time for her daughter to experience life with a puppy. She figured if things didn’t work well with the puppy, it would be acceptable because the puppy would be returned to Guiding Eyes for the Blind. The decision was obvious: Sharon and her family were going to try to raise a puppy.
In the beginning, puppy raising felt like a foreign language. “I had no understanding of puppy raising, Guiding Eyes for the Blind, or the socialization process of how a puppy becomes a guide dog. “That first year was a learning process for all of us,” Sharon says. Sharon’s first puppy, Jenny, was a loving, yellow lab. She was also very hyper and barked often. Though they worked hard to train her to become a Guiding Eyes graduate, she chose a different career. However, since Jenny was released, Sharon was given the option to adopt her. Without a second thought, Jenny became their forever pet. Sharon learned so much from her first experience as a puppy raiser and she was not ready to give it up.
Although Sharon wouldn’t change anything about her experience with Jenny, she felt like she had failed. She might have quit puppy raising if she and her husband hadn’t already decided to try the process again with a second puppy, Annie. This time the training was successful and Annie was matched and has been working as a guide for five years now. After going to their first puppy graduation, Sharon’s family was thrilled and Sharon knew that they had to continue puppy raising. One puppy led to another and eight years later, she and her husband are still raising.
Because Sharon has been puppy raising for a long time, training sessions have become a normal part of her life. After getting a two-month-old puppy, training sessions are held every week for ten weeks. After this ten-week period ends, the schedule changes from every week to every other week until the puppy leaves for New York when it is sixteen months old. Sharon and her husband consistently switch when going to training sessions. With each session, Sharon is more and more confident with her abilities, but, like with everything, it takes time to become skilled at training. Training can be scary at first because these puppies need to know specific commands and abilities in order to succeed. Because of this, there are many tests involved. However, these tests are something that is no longer a source of fear for Sharon because she has grown more confident and knows what to expect.
Sharon is a hard worker, and she always wants her puppy to be perfect, so it’s easy to get frustrated during training. However, she believes the majority of the time, training sessions are fun and rewarding. Training is an ongoing 24/7 process at home, outings, and events. The puppies also get to go to NIH with her husband and to math classes with Sharon.
Training sessions becoming a normal part of her life isn’t the only thing that changed. Puppy raising has changed Sharon in more than one way, especially in her growth as a teacher. Having gone to many training sessions, she has become more aware when she is too harsh on a student and has learned to balance her teaching with more praise and encouragement. Puppy raising has helped her better understand the many benefits that come out of praise and encouragement. For Sharon, however, her most important change is her greater empathy for blind people. She has become more aware of not only their challenges but other people with other disabilities. At the college she works at, she now takes notice of things she never has before. For example, before puppy raising, she would have never noticed if desks were too close for a wheelchair or guide dog. Sharon notes, “We isolate people more than we think and I want to believe I have a better understanding now of those challenges. I’ve also learned how to offer help or when it may actually be better to stand back.” She adds, “I’ve made new friends in the blind community.”
Puppy raising has had a positive impact on Sharon’s life and she definitely promotes it. However, she firmly believes if a person trains their puppy without grasping that it will someday belong to someone else, it will be challenging. For some people, saying goodbye to a puppy is too difficult to bear. For her, the hardest part of puppy raising is not knowing the dog’s future. Sharon admits that letting go is difficult, but she could never give up the chance to see one of her dogs working. She likes to think of raising puppies like raising children. One day they will leave, but they will forever be in the heart of the raiser.
Since beginning puppy raising, Sharon and her family have raised two active guides, a dog currently working at a school for autistic children, a dog awaiting a match in New York, and two dogs adopted by Sharon after being released. Nine-month-old black lab, April is currently learning at home and hopes to go back to school soon so she can pursue her goal of becoming a guide dog. Sharon’s children have grown and moved out, so the responsibilities now rest on Sharon and her husband. However, her children continue to support their effort to raise puppies and Sharon doesn’t see herself retiring from puppy raising anytime soon. She reflects, “It is such a positive rewarding experience, I can’t imagine not doing it.”