For some couples, becoming empty nesters means relaxing once children have grown up and left the house. But for Jeanne and John Segar, it was an excuse to raise even more babies.
Fur babies, that is.
About six years ago, the Segars, who live in Woodbury, applied to be puppy raisers through Canine Companions for Independence, a California-based non-profit that breeds and trains service dogs to assist people with disabilities. This year, organizations like CCI are recognizing Aug. 5-11 as International Assistance Dog Week to raise awareness about service dogs and the work they do.
Service dogs can play a big role in the independence of people who are physically disabled. The dogs are trained to do things like turn on lights, pick up a dropped set of keys and open doors. Service dogs can also be trained as “facility dogs” for healthcare and educational settings, or to support veterans with PTSD.
Service dogs trained by CCI are bred in Santa Rosa, California, at the organization’s headquarters. They are labradors, golden retrievers or a mix of the two, raised for their gentle demeanor and sharp minds.
Twelve weeks after the Segars sent in their application, passed a phone interview and a screening process, they received their first puppy, Tyra.
Puppy raisers receive puppies that are around two months old, and are responsible for their health, well-being and socialization, as well as teaching the puppy 30 basic commands.
Puppy raisers do not receive training themselves, but instead take their service-dog-in-training to classes where they can work on commands a puppy is having trouble with. These classes also help puppies with socialization, or getting used to being around people and other dogs.
Being properly socialized as a service-dog-in-training also means being out in the world as much as possible.
“Anywhere we go, the dog goes,” John said.
The Segars are currently raising their third and fourth dogs - Harry, who is 9 months old, and Ward, who is 19 months old. The two often accompany John and Jeanne to the movies and St. Paul Saints games, where they meet up with other service-dogs-in-training.
They also attend festivals to help promote CCI, like Twin Cities Pride in Loring Park. Next month, a group of puppy raisers will form a grape-stomping team at Crow River Winery in Hutchinson, though the dogs will simply spectate.
Dogs that are still training wear bright yellow vests to indicate their status, while working service dogs wear dark blue vests. The Segars said they’ve rarely been told they couldn’t enter a store or restaurant with a service dog-in-training, but business owners have the right to refuse them until a dog is fully trained and officially working.
When a dog is around 18-20 months old, it will go back to one of CCI’s regional headquarters for professional training, which lasts 6-8 months. Afterward, the dog is matched with someone in need of a service dog. The pair then spends about two weeks together, making sure the dog is a good fit for their particular needs. If so, the dog is given to the recipient, free of charge. Puppy raisers get to hand off the dog at a ceremony, where they meet their dog’s recipient.
Ward, the Segars’ third dog, will leave them on Friday, Aug. 10, for six months of training at the North Central Training Center in Delaware, Ohio.
The couple said it’s gotten easier to say goodbye since their first dog, and they’re amazed by how bonded a dog and its new person can become in just two weeks. But they still cry when they have to hand over the leash.
“It’s kinda like your kid going to college,” John said.
The Segars said they now think of each puppy they’ve raised as another member of the family. Every year, they send a card and a toy to each of their former puppies on their birthdays.
“Between the grandkids and the CCI puppies, there’s a lot of birthdays going on,” Jeanne said, laughing.
Sometimes dogs have the right temperament and demeanor to become service dogs, but may not be a good fit for skilled work. This was the case for the couple’s second dog, Neva. She now lives with the Segars and is a “mama dog” to the new puppies they receive.
Service dogs work for about 10 to 12 years, depending on how difficult and demanding their work is. Tyra, the couple’s first dog, became a hearing dog that alerts her owner to certain sounds, such as a doorbell, alarm clock or smoke detector.
“It’s just so amazing to know you changed somebody’s life and you were able to help that pup grow in confidence so that it could go into that training and do that work,” Jeanne said, tearing up. “Yeah, it’s emotional.”
For more information on becoming a puppy raiser, go to www.cci.org.