LAUREL, Md. —Joanne Wilson loves puppies. Really, really loves puppies.
Even when a puppy leaves a puddle by the stairs. Even when he wants to go out at 2 a.m. Even when he steals her shoe and then averts his eyes when she catches him holding it between his paws.
She lovingly teaches each puppy to sit, stay and fetch the newspaper. She trains them to bring her the food bowl, and not to eat food that doesn't belong to them. She tethers them to her belt loop so they get used to being around a person and anticipating her needs. Then, after about a year, she gives them away.
Wilson is a puppy raiser for Fidos for Freedom, an organization that raises and trains service dogs for people who have difficulty getting around, and hearing dogs for the deaf and hard of hearing.
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She usually takes a puppy home when it is between 9 and 12 weeks old. She is responsible for housebreaking the dog, taking him to the vet and to weekly obedience classes and getting him used to being around people. At about a year old, the dog will go to live with a trainer.
It was Wilson's coworkers at the Department of Agriculture who persuaded her to volunteer. They were former directors of Fidos for Freedom, a Maryland-based group affiliated with Assistance Dogs International, and they knew the organization needed puppy raisers.
She had a dog growing up, a long-haired mutt. But he didn't know how to do anything. Raising a puppy to be an assistance dog — even for a few months — seemed daunting.
Before she agreed, she went to the Fidos training center one Saturday to see the dogs. She was amazed at how well-behaved they were. They didn't pull on their leashes, jump on tables or knock people down. They would even lie on the floor under a table full of food without whining.
Then she talked to the clients who rely on the dogs: People in wheelchairs who need a dog to bring the paper in every morning, to turn on the light and shut the door. People who can't hear someone calling their name, or the fire alarm screaming in the middle of the night. She saw how a dog can change a life.
"I had no idea what a dog could learn, how much you could trust a dog," Wilson said.
She took a deep breath and said yes.
The first puppy was 6 months old when she brought him home. He was a black Labrador with the sweetest personality, who loved to rub up against her, climb into her lap and snuggle.
But Wilson was terrified. She felt like a new mother again: She wanted to do everything right, but had no idea what "right" was.
The first few months were as much a learning process for Wilson as they were for the puppy. One day she was walking him on a long leash, trying to teach him to heel. He saw a squirrel or a bird and took off. But when he got to the end of the leash, he slipped and fell.
When he scrambled back up, he was limping. Badly. The vet said he needed surgery. And even though he said the problem was a congenital defect, that it wasn't Wilson's fault, she felt responsible.
He came out of the surgery well, happy and sweet as ever. Wilson took him home and started back on the training regimen, and soon he was ready for the trainer. But he didn't make it as a service dog. Turns out, his bladder was too small. He couldn't hold it long enough to travel on a cross-country plane trip or stay next to someone all day in an office.
The trainers reassured Wilson, telling her it wasn't her fault. She tried again.
The second puppy, Chase, was a yellow Labrador. She trained him to go to the door when he needed to go out and to sleep in his crate at night without crying.
She told him he was a good dog when he did what she asked, and yanked his choke chain if he didn't. Sit. Stay. Off the couch. Down.
On Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings, she would take him to the Fidos for Freedom training center. One of those nights, a client accidentally dropped her cane on the floor, out of reach. The woman thought Chase could pick it up, but Wilson wasn't so sure.
Still, she figured it was worth a try.
"Chase, fetch!" Wilson said.
The puppy ambled over, picked up the cane and returned it.
Something clicked. Wilson realized she couldn't break these dogs after all. The puppies are born with the right abilities and the desire to please. She just needed to encourage the skills she wanted and discourage the behaviors she didn't.
Wilson's daughter was in fourth grade and her son in first when she took in that first puppy. Now her daughter has graduated from college and her son is a Marine.
There have been a lot of puppies since then, so many Wilson has lost count.
The current puppy is a 6-month old yellow Labrador named Cody. Two months ago, he was so round and white he resembled a seal cub. But he's growing — and learning fast.
Joe Swetnam, executive director of Fidos for Freedom, calls Wilson "an absolute treasure."
"I try to get Joanne to talk to every potential puppy raiser who comes in here," Swetnam said. "When she shares what she does with people. ... It's hard for people to understand how you can give up a puppy, and she explains it very well. She is a gem."