Claire Sutliff of Warrenton is raising a puppy who will become a guide dog
Photos by Maelyn Sutliff
Claire Sutliff loves dogs. In addition to working with them at her job at Paws Awhile Pet Motel in Warrenton, she has a 7-year-old lab of her own named Stella. Last May, as a senior in high school, she also volunteered to raise and train a 2-month-old yellow lab puppy named Viking for Freedom Guide Dogs for the Blind.
Claire was exposed at a young age to training dogs, not just as pets, but also as service dogs. Her aunt has worked with and raised dogs from Freedom Guide Dogs also, and Claire wanted to follow in her footsteps. She recalled how as a child it was difficult to see her favorite puppy go to someone else, but as she grew up, she came to appreciate the significance of raising them to help someone who needs them.
Freedom Guide Dogs is based in New York. Their motto is to provide “another pair of eyes for those who cannot see.” Through their puppy raiser program, puppies are paired with people who take them in and raise them as if they were their own. The pups are treated just as if they are part of the family and undergo preliminary training to prepare them for the next, more rigorous stages of their lives: more specific training as guide dogs and their subsequent placement with a vision-impaired owner. But the important thing is the puppies get a good, solid start in life, with plenty of love. The training they receive from their raisers is general: house training, exposure to the outside world, socialization, and basic good manners. Raisers are responsible for food and treats (and plenty of love) and Freedom Guide Dogs pays for their veterinary care.
As a busy college student who also works, taking on the responsibility of training a service dog might seem like too much. But for Claire, it felt like the natural next step in her journey. The catalyst was learning about an academic scholarship opportunity based on community service. She’s working towards her associate degree and wants to pursue a career in the sciences, and the scholarship piqued her interest. She applied and chose raising a service dog as her service. Unfortunately, she didn’t get the scholarship, but she chose to move forward with raising a guide dog anyway.
“I love getting to work with Viking, but truly it has taught me so much about self management and time management,” Claire said. “I have to make my own deadlines, and I can’t procrastinate. That’s really important for me and I get to learn through Viking.” She explained that unlike other jobs, where you can postpone responsibilities until the last minute, that doesn’t work when it comes to puppy training. The dog needs time to learn. There are building blocks and milestones to be met – no waiting until the last minute or taking shortcuts. And people are watching! Part of the training includes taking Viking out into busy, public spaces like stores, restaurants, or events to help him get used to the sights, sounds, and smells all around. “It has been a learning process taking him in public. People are watching you and you can’t think about them or yourself – you have to focus on your job and the dog and what you need to do. Plus, you’re representing the program,” Claire added.
Claire is expected to have Viking until next summer when he is between 12 and 18 months old. Of course, this could change due to his progress and maturity. The timing works out very well as Claire is soon moving to Richmond to attend VCU. Viking will have the experience of moving, and learning to adapt to a new setting.
When Claire reached out to Freedom Guide Dogs, she found that her experience working at Paws Awhile helped with the application process, and as luck would have it, a litter was about to be born in the organization. She received information about what it’s like with a new puppy, the training involved, signs of stress, and a home training manual. They also offer support via phone. Claire’s job is to teach Viking to be a good dog at home, a good dog in public, and to focus on his handler in spite of distractions. She is not expected to teach him the nuances of being a guide dog, that will be done when Viking returns to Freedom Guide Dogs. She will soon take Viking to obedience class and undergo Canine Good Citizen certification.
When Viking is out in public, he is allowed to be social, but it is important that he learn self-control. She found that the Walmart parking lot, where there are many people, sounds, and smells, is a great place for him to work with focusing in the face of many outside stimuli. He’s also gone to school with Claire several times.
Raising and training a puppy forms a strong bond between puppy and handler, which can make it hard for the handler to pass the puppy back to the organization when it’s time. “I’ve always known that if I’m doing well in the moment, that it will be okay,” Claire said when asked how she thinks she’ll handle giving Viking back. But there are certainly more dogs in her future. Her heart is made for loving animals. She wants to foster dogs in the future and adopt older dogs and love them through the end of their lives. “I have the capacity to love in the moment and give all I can knowing I’m doing good for others,” she added.
Being a guide dog raiser takes sacrifice, love, and patience. But as Claire knows, it’s an act that is greater than yourself, which she believes everyone is capable of. “This is community service. Everyone has it in them. Dogs might be different. They focus all of their love and attention on you – and that devotion is unparalleled and can be hard to get over,” she said. “You are the sun in their world. You might be the sun at this moment, but someone else needs that sun more, and you’re setting them up to be the sun for someone else.”