Amid the sounds of dogs barking, Renee Davis gushed about her dogs: pug Arielfire, Chihuahua Burrito Enchilada, and German shepherd and Seeing Eye puppy in training Cleo.
Davis and her son, Alex, of the Villas section of Lower Township, are part of Cape May County's 4-H club People and Puppies at Work for Sight, or PPAWS. The club encompasses Atlantic and Cape May counties.
Families that are part of PPAWS receive a puppy - usually a German shepherd, a Labrador retriever or a Labrador cross - which they raise for about a year, until the puppy is returned to The Seeing Eye Inc. in Morristown.
Christine Higham, area coordinator for The Seeing Eye, said the 4-H program is unique because it grants whole families and adults the ability to raise puppies through an organization that is typically youth-oriented.
"It's like an extended family, that's what's so great about the club," Davis said.
Eligible families receive a puppy after routine checks that can include house inspections and confirmations of a veterinarian. Davis also said the family must have spent time attending PPAWS meetings to learn more about raising a puppy for the Seeing Eye. Puppies are about 7 weeks old when placed with a family.
Despite the option for families to raise puppies, Davis is worried about the future of the club.
"People are not joining our (club). Everybody says, 'I would love to do it, but afterward you have to give the dog away,'" she said.
Seeing Eye puppies in training are expected to spend a great deal of time with their raisers, to expose them to many different scenarios they might encounter when they work as someone's service dog.
Higham said "exposure outings" are very important for puppies in training, because the dogs need to behave well in varied circumstances if they are to continue in their training to assist a person in real life.
But this constant need for exposure may cause some puppy-raisers to become especially attached to their puppies, Davis said.
"I've gotten attached because (Cleo's) with me 24/7," Davis said. "But she's going to be somebody's eyes! Think of how amazing that is. They get freedom, and I get to raise another puppy."
After about a year with the foster family, the puppy is returned to The Seeing Eye, where the dogs are tested to determine whether they are eligible to continue training in the Seeing Eye program. Davis says if they are, they are matched with a trainer until they are fit to be matched with a candidate.
Lisa Maurer's family, of Lower Township, has raised two puppies for PPAWS. The family is currently taking a break from raising puppies, due to the arrival of a grandson in the family, she said. Maurer says it is difficult to give up a puppy when the year is up, but knowing from the beginning that the puppies are leaving serve a greater purpose makes it less difficult.
"It's a very hard day, very emotional. But at the same time, it's a good thing," Maurer said. "You know their going off to do what there purpose was to do."
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For more information about PPAWS or Seeing Eye Inc., see seeingeye.org.