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Raising them right

CENTRAL POINT — Several dozen employees, friends and family gathered at Providence Medical Group in Central Point awaiting a special arrival on Friday.

As they discussed baby names, snuggle time and congratulated anxious parents, a chubby faced 8-week-old puppy named Pence was walked down the steps of the Guide Dogs for the Blind's "puppy truck."

The sleepy-eyed pooch seemed only mildly impressed by onlookers shouts of, "Look at those wrinkles!" and "How sweet!"

A shaved spot on his right shoulder indicated he was the largest of his litter.

Sixteen-year-old Maddey Sweeney, one of Pence's two "moms" who will raise him during his initial training and socialization period, was immediately smitten.

"I get excited every time. Pence will be my fifth dog I've raised," she noted.

"My dad saw an ad when I was only 9, about raising the dogs. He knew I love dogs so we decided to try it and I ended up loving it so I stuck with it."

A student at Cascade Christian School, the Central Point teen takes her dogs, once past the initial socialization and basic obedience training, to classes and wherever else she goes.

The Central Point clinic boasts a handful of local puppy raisers who do the same. Lynn Hobbs, who works with Maddey's mother, Jaymey Sweeney, at Providence, signed on as co-parent to Pence.

A veteran puppy raiser for two decades, Hobbs is also the lead for Jackson County's group of Guide Dogs for the Blind puppy raisers.

Hobbs, who was inspired by a family member with vision impairment, could not immediately tally the number of dogs she had raised, guessing it to be somewhere "in the multiple double digits."

Hobbs said the dogs offer independence and constant companionship for the visually impaired.

"With these dogs they're able to go to the grocery store or walk to the mailbox for themselves. They don't have to wait for someone to go with them," Hobbs said.

"It's a real independence. And with these dogs, people talk to them. They'll say, 'Tell me about your dog.' It's a conversation starter. People won't say, 'Tell me about your cane.' People love dogs."

Throughout the process of socializing the dogs, prior to the more formal guide dog training, puppy raisers are tasked with exposing the dogs to as much stimuli as possible.

"If somebody in our group has an environment that would help my dog, then we trade dogs for a time," said Hobbs. "I've got livestock, so I take the dogs and get them used to livestock and they'll take mine and get them used to, say, the gym. Schools here will allow puppy raisers to bring their dogs to school, so they're exposed to a whole lot of different situations."

With more than 900 volunteers in seven states, the guide dogs are provided to anyone in need, at no cost, in the United States and Canada. A 50 percent success rate requires the raising of a lot of puppies, Hobbs notes. "Career change" dogs who don't make it as guide dogs are adopted out, with first dibs usually given to their first parents.

Maddey's third dog, a black lab female, lives with her family.

On the other end of a canine's career, Hobbs provides a home for a retired guide dog, 9-year-old Aggie, who serves as a mentor to dogs in training.

Anne Touloukian, a Guide Dogs for the Blind volunteer who drove the puppy truck on Friday, said puppy raisers are the heart of the 70-plus-year-old program. A puppy raiser and driver for the organization (guidedogs.com) Touloukian said Friday's run originated near San Rafael with 13 dogs and would venture as far north as Tacoma, heading south after all deliveries had been made, then picking up adult dogs ready for their next stage of training.

Touloukian said no matter how many "deliveries" she witnesses, it's always heartwarming to see puppies heading off to begin their possible journey as future guide dogs.

"Our volunteer puppy raisers are incredible," she said. "They literally do all the work of raising these little puppies and turning them into wonderful dogs. If we didn't have puppy raising volunteers, we could not do what we do and so many people's lives would be very different.

"They raise these dogs for us — and with only 50 percent of dogs that actually make it to be guide dogs we need to raise a lot of puppies — and then they let them go off to training. Puppy raisers are an irreplaceable part of what we do."

Newly infatuated with "puppy number 5," Maddey admitted to some advantages in parenting the pups.

"You get to enjoy them for a year or year-and-a-half, depending on how long it takes them to be ready, and it's kind of like having a baby because you have to baby-proof the house and teach them everything. It's a lot of work, but it's fun," she said.

"It's always hard to let them go but it's for a good reason, because they help someone have a better life, and when they go to the training campus, they post their phases on the website so you can see how far they go and how well they do. It's just a really cool way to do some good and to help people."

For information on the program, or to find out about raising puppies, visit

guidedogs.com, or call 503-668-2100.

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

Maddey Sweeney holds Pence after his arrival in Central Point on Friday. Sweeney will co-raise Pence as he's groomed to become a Guide Dog for the Blind. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch