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Natural Awakenings Greater Boston - Rhode Island

Raising Puppies to Be Heroes: How to Foster Guide Dog Candidates

Apr 29, 2024 09:22AM ● By Ruth Roberts, DVM, CVA, CVH, CVFT, NAN
child with puppy

FamVeld from Getty Images

Fostering puppies to become guide dogs or service animals can be a deeply meaningful endeavor. Beyond being loyal companions, these special pups profoundly impact the lives of people with disabilities by offering mobility and a newfound sense of freedom. They not only assist in navigation but also pave the way for social opportunities and contribute to the overall happiness and well-being of their owners.

In a 2019 study published in the journal Animals, Austrian researchers compared the quality of life and annual medical costs of 36 blind individuals with and without a guide dog by means of a standardized questionnaire. Although no significant differences in quality of life were noted, the guide dog owners reported lower medical costs and expressed a firm belief that their canine companions facilitated social contacts and had a positive impact on their independence and health.

Critical Role of Foster Families 

Breeds known for their intelligence and temperament, such as Labradors, golden retrievers and German shepherds, are preferred choices. Their guide-dog journey begins just days after they are born, when foster families take them in and expose them to new experiences, sounds and surfaces, along with early tutelage in body handling, kennel training and wearing a puppy jacket. 

At 8 weeks old, the pups begin to learn good manners and socialization skills. This period is pivotal in preparing them for formal service-dog training. Nearly half of the canines bred to become guide dogs fail before the end of their training because they are skittish and fearful. In a 2021 study, also published in Animals, French researchers sought to understand the nature and causes of such fears by observing and measuring stress biomarkers of 5-month-old guide-dog candidates as they were exposed to unfamiliar people, visual and sound stimuli, and physical handling.

The scientists concluded that the more time a puppy spent alone, the more likely it was to be afraid, underscoring the importance of early socialization and habituation to boost confidence and adaptability by exposing them to different people, animals and environments. The researchers characterized the early development period of puppies as “a decisive phase influencing their temperament in adulthood,” thereby enhancing their chances of success as guide dogs. 


Fostering Tips

Caring for a guide-dog candidate during its formative first months can make or break the animal’s future performance. Here are a few tips for foster parents. 

  • Offer positive reinforcement. Celebrate small wins, maintain a positive attitude and apply consistent commands and routines when training a guide dog. This strategy not only builds a solid foundation but also speeds up the learning process and minimizes stress for both trainers and puppies.
  • Provide rewards and discipline. Treats, praise and playtime encourage puppies to repeat desired behaviors. Simultaneously, it is important to set boundaries and enforce rules to guide their behavior, ensuring they grow into well-behaved guide dogs.
  • Ensure their health. Regular veterinary check-ups, vaccinations and a balanced diet are crucial to keeping the puppy healthy and ready for training. A physically fit pooch is more capable of focusing and learning during training sessions.
  • Learn to let go. Recognize that saying goodbye is part of the process when the puppy is ready to move on to specialized training or to be paired with their person. Focus on the incredible impact the dog will have on someone’s life.
  • Communicate with the experts. Always seek support and advice from the training organization and document the puppy’s progress. This will help the foster family avoid missteps or make early corrections in caretaking and training. Future trainers or handlers will also benefit from the documentation.
  • Stay informed. Keep up to date on new training techniques and trends in the field of service animals to enhance the fostering experience.


Training Programs and Organizations

After leaving their foster families, usually around the age of 12 to 18 months, guide-dog candidates will enter a formal training program, such as the one offered by the nonprofit Guide Dogs for the Blind, the largest school of its kind in North America, with campuses in California, Oregon and Canada. Here, the young canines learn specialized skills needed to assist their future owners—a process that takes at least another year. All of the training and support is provided free of charge, made possible by donors and volunteers.

To learn more, visit Guide Dogs for the Blind (, Seeing Eye Dogs ( and Guiding Eyes for the Blind ( There are numerous ways to help these organizations such as volunteering time, donating money, fostering puppies or assisting in awareness campaigns.

Ruth Roberts is an integrative veterinarian and holistic health coach for pets, as well as the creator of The Original CrockPet Diet. Learn more at