October 23, 2021

Lending A Paw

Freedom Guide Dogs needs volunteers

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Katie Mercer works with Clover, a lab/collie mix at her Cortlandville home. Katie and her family are puppy trainers for Freedom Guide Dogs for the Blind.

Katie Mercer didn’t want to give up the puppy her family was raising for Freedom Guide Dogs for the Blind.

This particular dog, the second they were “puppy raising” for the nonprofit based in Cassville, was a dog named “Barbie.” The guide dog agency is in charge of naming their dogs.

“I looked in her eyes,” said the graduate student from Cortlandville. “She’s not a Barbie. She’s a Barbara.”

The two bonded.

“She was my emotional support dog during COVID. I didn’t want her to pass the training,” said Mercer, daughter of Beth and Joel Mercer of Cortlandville.

Puppy training is a family responsibility, said Beth Mercer, a physician’s assistant and program director at Le Moyne College. Other children, Teddy, now in college, and Mary, now a teacher on her own, have cared for puppies in the Freedom Guide Dog program as well, getting the animals socialized in their homes and communities.

More training for the dogs will follow through the agency, which breeds, raises and places working guide dogs with the blind and visually impaired at no cost.

Freedom Guide Dogs for the Blind, which serves people on the East Coast and veterans who are blind, relies on donations, puppy raiser volunteers and a volunteer board of directors.

The Mercers are on their third dog, Clover, a lab collie mix.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Beth Mercer of Cortlandville feeds Clover a snack. Mercer said Clover is the smartest dog she’s ever cared for

“I have a brother who is blind, who has had three dogs from Freedom Guide Dogs,” Beth Mercer said. “I know, and we know as a family, what a gift this is to make their lives easier.”

“I love having the dogs. We’ve always had dogs,” Katie Mercer said. “It’s great to have them in the house. I know I get attached.”

But she thinks of people like her uncle who benefit from the dog relationship. Katie said her uncle, who’s blindness was a result of diabetes, and his dog have become so close, the dog can sense when his sugar levels are off.

Beth Mercer said that has nothing to do with guide dog training. She credits some breeds as being super sensitive to their owners’ habits.

Freedom Guide Dogs for the Blind, founded in 1992 by Eric and Sharon Loori, works with Labrador retrievers, smooth-coat collies and Barbets, which are French water dogs.

Puppy raisers are asked to raise well-behaved dogs, getting them to walk on a loose leash, house break the puppies, and expose them to the outside world and other animals.

After about a year and a half with the family, the guide dogs are assessed and will go to the home of a blind client, where the guide dog and person are trained.

“We have been placing approximately 35 to 40 guide dogs with those who are blind or visually impaired yearly,” said Ashleigh Pace, breeding and puppy program manager at Freedom Guide Dogs. “I am always looking for puppy raisers. With the demand of those in need of guide dogs increasing each year, so is the number of puppies we produce.”

Beth Mercer said the family got Clover at 8 weeks old and the puppy is now almost 8 months old. “We usually have them for about 15 months. Our only job is to socialize them,” she said.

They get the dog around men, women, children, people with deep voices, people with squeaky voices. They go to baseball games, stores like Lowe’s and Country Max that allow dogs, and bring them to activities.

“We walk them around places where grates are in the street, where there’s lots of traffic,” said Beth Mercer.

They take the dog to Homer to see lots of people and Cortland to be around traffic. A teen in the neighborhood walks Clover a few times a week so the animal is exposed to high school kids.

“They have to be aware of everything,” Mercer said. “We have a ton of dogs in the neighborhood. They can’t be (intimidated) around other dogs.”

They also teach them basics: sit, stay, no jumping, no pulling on the leash.

“For me what’s challenging is when it’s time to give them up,” said Beth Mercer. “Your mind set is, ‘this is your job … you raise them and let them go. With these guys, you’ve invested so much in puppyhood.”

Then, suddenly, they are adult dogs. After that, Freedom Guide Dogs takes over.

Beth Mercer said Barbara wasn’t the easiest to care for. Kennels were full at the time and the dog could not be placed. “The dog wasn’t in good shape. But she made it.”

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Katie Mercer is a graduate student who will study in London this fall, pets Clover, a lab/collie mix, in Cortlandville. The Mercers are volunteer puppy trainers, in charge of socializing, house training and teaching basic commands to young dogs for Freedom Guide Dogs for the Blind.

The Mercers have been good at socializing their animals, using treats and practicing basic commands. Freedom Guide Dogs gives them a set of benchmarks.

Beth said she’s more indebted to getting the animals ready for Freedom Guide Dogs than when she had her own dogs. Her personal dogs were never as well behaved, she said, laughing.

“If there’s a challenging behavior, we go to Freedom Guide Dogs and ask them,” Beth Mercer said.

The dogs come with a vest. Freedom Guide Dogs pay for veterinarian care.

“You pay for home stuff: food,” Mercer said.

Pace has worked at animal hospitals in the past.

“Unfortunately working in the medical field with animals, your workday doesn’t always consist of happy, healthy animals,” she said.

This job is not like that. And she likes to help people in need.

“I am so happy to have this opportunity to work with dogs and puppies each and every day,” Pace said.

She sees the program come full circle. She delivers the puppies to their puppy raisers and oversees their progress. Then she sees the dogs come in for formal training with their guide dog mobility instructor and sees them placed with a person.

“We then are a phone call away for our clients who receive our dogs and need assistance, someone to talk to or just to thank us for the wonderful dog that Freedom Guide Dogs has provided them with,” Pace said.

Mercer is so grateful for the program; it has helped her brother.

“I want more people to be puppy raisers,” she said.