Dogs being trained to assist the blind sit patiently by their owners during the Guide Dogs of America training class at the Ken Edwards Center during a meeting earlier this month. Each dog undergoes months of strict training before becoming an official guide dog for the blind. (photo by Brandon Wise)

DOWNTOWN — Glyn Judson is one proud parent — even though his kids are a little hairy and might drool sometimes.

Judson raises puppies for Guide Dogs of America, the national group that trains companion dogs for blind people. He takes in puppies from the GDA school in Silmar, Calif. when they are about seven weeks old, and is responsible for socializing the puppies until they are 18 months old and move onto the next stage of their training back at the school.

“It’s assumed that by that time they will have developed the experience in the world and the maturity to go to the next level,” Judson said.

The way to do that, Judson said, is simple: take the dog everywhere.

“There isn’t a checklist of places to go and sights to see, but in the course of one’s daily activities, these dogs go with you,” Judson said. “If I go to the dentist, my dog goes to the dentist. If I go out to dinner, my dog goes out to dinner. If you were to fly to New York, the dog would fly with you.”

Judson has had some experience as a puppy trainer. His sixth dog, Jack, is almost ready to move on to the next level of command training, and he is about to open his home to another potential guide dog: Ned, a black lab who is only a few weeks old.

But Judson isn’t the only Santa Monica resident who raises puppies for the program.

The Westside Puppy Raisers Group — composed of people who raise a total of 16 dogs of a variety of ages and breeds — meets once per month at the Ken Edwards Community Center to discuss the challenges of hosting the puppies. From bringing the dogs on bus rides to taking them to restaurants, the group goes on outings designed to help prepare their puppies to be guide dogs.

“It looks like fun — you get to have a puppy 24/7,” said Miriam Howard, who is currently raising her third dog, a five-month-old black lab named Keith. “But it’s a lot of work. We get puppies when they are seven weeks old and they are babies. We have to teach them everything.”

Although the group members do their best to raise the puppies, not all dogs will complete the entire Guide Dogs of America training program.

“My first one was released from the program at his first evaluation, which is around nine months old. He had an enormous fear of loud traffic,” Howard said. “We ended up keeping him as a pet and while he’s a wonderful, wonderful dog, he would not have been a good guide. They don’t get dropped because they are bad dogs, it’s because they might not work for a guide.”

When the dogs are paired with guides, however, their “parents” say the feeling is indescribable.

Sherri Annis works with Bruce, the only dog Judson has raised that has graduated from the program. She lives outside San Francisco, and must commute 45 minutes each way on the BART to attend classes at San Francisco State University, where she is pursuing her master’s to teach the visually impaired. Without Bruce, she said, her life would be much more difficult.

“I can walk much more confidently and quickly,” Annis said. “He just gets me right through those places on campus and it’s just as smooth as glass.”

Annis said she has a special relationship with her 97-pound golden retriever.

“Next to my very first dog, he is right up there — I could not tell you which one is the better dog. I don’t like to think of the day I won’t have Brucie,” she said. “When we met, it was love at first sight.”

Ultimately, the raisers say, the reward of helping train a guide dog is what keeps them coming back for more puppies.

“If I can be a part of helping one dog make it through the program and that dog goes on to bless somebody’s life with their big brown eyes, then it’s worth every poop I have to pick up and all the driving and training,” Howard said. “I have 20/20 vision and I love dogs. It’s the least I can do.”

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