JOHNSTOWN – The first time Nadeen Rizzo laid eyes on her Freedom Guide Dogs puppy, she fell in love.
“We had lost our dog of 15 years and it was a huge loss for our family,” said Rizzo. “Getting the puppy was exciting for all of us.”
Rizzo, along with husband John, daughters Abbie and Emma, and son Vincent, are one of several families in the area who volunteer to “homeschool” a puppy as part of Freedom Guide Dogs – a not-for-profit organization based in upstate New York. Freedom Guide Dogs breed, raise, train and places guide dogs with the blind and visually-impaired through a program called “Hometown Training.”
The training places the puppies in homes where they learn all the basic commands – sit, stay, come, lay down – as well as condition them to all types of social situations a family may encounter as they go about their daily lives such as grocery shopping, church and sporting events.
“Right after we got our first puppy we went camping,” said Abbie. “That was a lot of fun.”
Freedom places the dogs with visually-impaired people in the eastern United States at no cost to the client.
The Rizzos are on their fifth puppy – Vara.
Freedom Guide Dogs was started by husband and wife team – Eric and Sharon Loori – in 1992 when they recognized a need for a breed other than German Shepards as a guide dog.
“We were young and naive enough to think we could just fund another charity – German Shepards are not for everyone,” said Eric Loori.
The first year, the non-profit placed six dogs. Last year, they placed 36.
“As we raised more money, we could place more,” said Loori, adding the charity is always in need of donations and volunteers. “We have as many as 50 puppies out at any given time.”
Loori continued, noting it takes a lot to keep the organization going.
“What most people do not realize is guide dog [programs] do not receive any kind of federal funding – only a few grants here and there,” said Loori. “And most blind people do not have the funds to purchase a guide dog.”
Loori said after the year and a half of homeschooling – the families pay for everything but the puppy’s medical care during that time -the dogs are turned over to trainers where they undergo more intensive training.
In the meanwhile, another division of Freedom Guide Dogs personally meets each applicant.
“We interview and assess each individual and we look at many different things,” said Loori. “Matching the dog and the individual is like a marriage.”
He said their success rate is around 90 percent.
“Nobody is perfect and sometimes the match doesn’t work out – we might have misjudged a dog or a person, so we have to fix it,” said Loori.
The waiting list for a dog is a year to a year and a half, Loori said.
“It also depends on the person’s challenges,” said Loori, adding factors such as age, abilities and living situations all factor in the matching process.
Nancy Unczur of Johnstown was introduced to the program by Rizzo. She picked up her second puppy – Bleu – almost three weeks ago.
“He’s 11 weeks old now and he already knows all the basic commands,” said Unczur. “And I taught him how to high-five.”
Unczur said the most difficult part of the program was the day she had to say goodbye to her first dog, Quigley, (littermates are named with letters of the alphabet, so all the puppies from Quigley’s litter were named with the letter Q and the families are the ones who pick the names.)
“It was awful – we were all sick,” said Unczur, who agreed to take on Bleu after being called this spring by Freedom, asking her to take on another puppy.
“I wasn’t sure if I was ready – we lost our dog, Rio, in April and I didn’t know if I was really ready for another dog.”
Unczur said she thinks she is more prepared this time knowing she is helping others.
“They say it gets easier [to let them go,]” said Unczur, who hires a neighbor to spend time with Bleu during the day while she is at work.
Rizzo agreed it gets a little easier after the first dog.
“The first one was very hard,” said Rizzo. “We were all upset.”
“Olivia was the hardest,” added Emma. “She was the sweetest.”
Olivia was the Rizzo’s second puppy. She is now in Rochester with her human companion.
In fact, the Rizzos can name off where each of their Freedom puppies went – from Magic, their first, he’s in Buffalo, to Gemini, their only yellow lab who is in Florida, to Jonzy, who was named for a student who was part of a school program to raise money for the organization.
Rizzo said the part she enjoys most is socializing the puppies – bringing them to schools, church and even camping and educating people about service and guide dogs.
“They wear a red vest that says ‘Freedom Guide Dogs Puppy-in-Training,” said Rizzo. “Some people know not to touch them or run up to them and then others ask a lot of questions and it feels wonderful to be able to educate them.”
“Yeah, remember the time we went to Lowes?” said Vincent.
It seems, said Rizzo, everyone was so enamored with Magic that as they went through each aisle, employees were on the radio talking to each other.
“They’d say, ‘Puppy in aisle five,'” said Rizzo. “It is such a great feeling [homeschooling a Freedom Guide Dog.] Anyone can be a puppy raiser and if you can’t do that, you can donate food, gas cards or money – every little bit helps. “
To learn more about Freedom Guide Dogs, donate or become a “homeschooler,” visit their website at freedomguidedogs.org; or call (315) 822-5132. FGD is located in Cassville, N.Y.