"Can we get a dog?" Maybe your child right now is begging for a puppy that he desperately wants to find wearing a big red bow under the Christmas tree. If you answered "no" to his or her plea, don't be surprised when the question doesn't go away. Whenever I asked our daughter what she wanted for either Christmas or her birthday, the answer was always the same: "a puppy." Though my husband and I are dog lovers, and have owned Labradors throughout our married years, we could not grant her heart's desire of a forever-young puppy. Fortunately, we found another way to honor her wish.
At the age of 7, she got her first "puppy fix" when our family became Puppy Socializers for the Guiding Eyes for the Blind (GEB), an internationally accredited guide dog school in Yorktown, New York. Since that June day when we drove home with Jennifer and Jonquil, our first pair of guide-dogs-in-training, our daughter has taken increasing responsibility for each of the thirty puppies we have brought into our home.
Puppy socializers care for two, six to nine-week old Labs and treat them as if they are their own, but for just a few days. After the socializing shift ends, the little ones are returned and tested to see if they have the personality traits that make them a good (saintly, in my mind) guide dog. Evaluating them after home socializing has vastly improved GEB's ability to predict which dogs have the right stuff to enter the next phase of training.
While I truly love hosting the puppies, there is considerable canine chaos to contend with. But for our daughter, cuddling trumps mess any day. Climbing into the exercise pen, she hugs the puppies, letting them fall asleep on her lap. She feeds and walks them and, ever so gently, places one into the outstretched arms of an excited friend.
She has also had puppies chew on her fingers and nibble on pajama pants legs. She's heard them cry and yowl, typically during the 45-minute drive from the GEB breeding center to our house. She has watched them play with their water dish, drenching papers she has just laid down. She has walked them and brought them back indoors only to see them pee and poop again on those freshly laid newspapers.
In sum, she has learned much about dog ownership.
She has also come to understand another lesson. While playing with all of these puppies, she grew up learning about volunteerism. Now that she is 17 and increasingly making her own decisions about how to spend her time (and money), she understands the importance of the roll-up-your-sleeves way to help others.
She absorbed this message while holding her end of the leash for Jennifer and Jonquil, Harriett and Hawaii, Una and Uncle, Mandrake and Moose and so many other sweet pups. So this holiday season, consider that a gift to your child might be to help them channel their interests into a gift for others. It may take a little time to research a likely connection but could there be a better gift you can give your offspring? In my dog-loving opinion, way better than a puppy under the Christmas tree.
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