The Lemoore High School FFA Guide Dog Puppy Raising Project began in 1989 with just one dog. Since then, it’s grown into a thriving program that has inspired other FFA chapters to follow suit. It was even named Organization of the Year by the Lemoore Chamber of Commerce in January 2019.
“I started the Guide Dog Puppy Raising Project because I thought it would be a great option for the kids who don’t come from a production agriculture background and don’t necessarily have access to livestock but are interested in animals and want to learn about veterinary medicine and nutrition,” says Marybeth Hearn, an agriculture instructor at Lemoore High School in Lemoore, Calif. “As more and more of our FFA members got involved as Guide Dog Puppy Raisers, I decided to bring it to the National FFA Organization as a potential supervised agricultural experience (SAE) project. Since 2013, Guide Dog Puppy Raising has been recognized as an official SAE.”
Lemoore FFA members apply for a dog through a partnership with Guide Dogs for the Blind, an organization that prepares highly qualified guide dogs to serve people who are blind. After a thorough screening and training process, they receive an eight- to 10-week-old puppy – a Labrador retriever, golden retriever or a cross between the two breeds – and the animal is theirs to raise for the next several months.
FFA members are tasked with caring for their puppies around the clock, socializing and helping to train them for their eventual task of working 24-7 for someone blind or visually impaired. After 14 to 16 months, the dogs are returned to Guide Dogs for the Blind to receive more formal training before beginning their careers.
“Raising a puppy is a huge responsibility,” Hearn says. “Throughout this process, I’ve seen our FFA members grow into more flexible and adaptable people, and they learn how to problem-solve because they inevitably hit roadblocks during the training process and have to figure out how to get the dog back on track.”
Hearn and Lemoore FFA have helped other chapters get similar projects off the ground. For example, after learning about the Lemoore High School FFA Guide Dog Puppy Raising Project at the National FFA Convention & Expo, Kim O’Byrne – an agriculture teacher and career specialist at Las Cruces Public Schools in New Mexico – reached out to Hearn. With her assistance, O’Byrne helped launch a guide dog training program called the Mesilla Valley Paw Patrol that was a collaboration between the Centennial FFA, Mayfield FFA and Las Cruces High School HOSA (Health Occupations Students of America).
Although the Mesilla Valley Paw Patrol is currently on hiatus, O’Byrne says it was one of the most impactful projects she’s seen students take on, and she has no doubt it will be revived in the future.
“When you think about the FFA Creed, ‘…for I know the joys and discomforts of agricultural life,’ the Guide Dog Puppy Raising Project makes perfect sense,” O’Byrne says. “Along with the fun parts of having a puppy, FFA members have to tackle the challenging parts, like caring for it when it gets sick and cleaning up its messes. Plus, the kids have to go through the process of giving the dog to its new owner, which can be both a painful and rewarding transition. It’s truly a life-changing experience for everyone involved.”