BOWDOINHAM — Chris and Jen Waite were still considering whether to become guide dog puppy raisers — maybe they should puppy-sit for a weekend first to see what it would be like — when they got a call from Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

It was March. COVID-19 was starting to take hold. There was this litter.

“There were puppies that really needed to go somewhere right that minute basically,” Jen said. “We just said, ‘All right, let’s just do this.’ We jumped right in.”

Enter Isla, a smart, challenging yellow Labrador retriever puppy, a guide dog in training.

While other families spent the past eight months of the pandemic home schooling, figuring out Zoom, and watching a lot of TV,  the Waites have spent it crate training, housebreaking and figuring out how to socialize a puppy in a socially-distant world.

“It’s been good. And hard. All of those things,” Jen said with a laugh.

The Waites were no strangers to dog raising. Chris, 53, had dogs growing up and as an adult. Jen, 46, had Bella, a geriatric husky-Lab mix, when the couple met. Bella died in 2018, about a year before they married.

Ilsa wants to jump and visit a stranger but obediently sits during a recent training session with Chris and Jen Waite in Brunswick. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The couple wanted a dog together, but Bella’s loss was still so recent.

“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do that again, having been through what I had been through with Bella. I was like, ‘I don’t know if I want to go through that again,’ and that’s very real. And just also thinking about the responsibility that it adds to your life as far as traveling, and I have aging parents and I work full time and just kind of all that stuff that you think about when you’re considering having a dog,” Jen said. “Somewhere in that mix I said, ‘I wonder if you could just raise puppies.'”

It turned out that, yes, yes they could. But puppy-raising — training a dog for more than a year and giving it to someone else to become a guide dog — would not be easy and it would not be quick. The Waites had to submit an application, go through an interview and have their home inspected. They spoke to other puppy-raisers and, by happenstance while observing a class, spoke to someone who had received a guide dog.

They were just thinking about puppy-sitting for a weekend when New York-based Guiding Eyes for the Blind called. They had puppies that badly needed families. The Waites agreed to be one of those families.

They would get Ilsa, then almost 9 weeks old, part of a litter whose names all began with the letter I. With everything shut down for the pandemic, the handoff was “part of a logistical nightmare” for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, Chris said.

“We picked her up on the side of the road. We all met at a rest stop,” Jen said.

Since then there have been the puppy-raising basics — housebreaking, crate training, teaching her manners, getting her to think things through since, as a guide dog, she’ll have to problem solve.

“It’s much more of a relationship training than to follow the rules kind of thing,” Chris said. “You’re kind of letting dog to make decisions and guiding them to do the right thing.”

And then there have been the pandemic challenges, like finding ways to socialize a puppy when gatherings are ill-advised. So the Waites got creative, sitting with Ilsa outside the grocery store and hardware store to people-watch, walking through an empty Starbucks, meeting with other dog owners across a street so they could walk parallel. Jen, a community-based nurse who visits people in their homes, takes Ilsa to work with her a few days each week.

But not everything has been more difficult. Puppy training classes are much easier to get to when they’re held over Zoom.

Now about 9 months old, Isla will live with the Waites for about six months more. After that, she will return to Guiding Eyes for the Blind for more advanced training and, if she passes the rigorous requirements, she’ll be paired with her new owner.

They are glad they said yes.

“I think this has been a fantastic chance for us to spend time with a dog again and I would definitely recommend this to someone who is thinking about getting a dog but is not sure they’re ready,” Jen said.

“The support and training is solid. We would definitely consider doing this again. Ilsa is a brilliant dog and it’s so fun to have her in our lives, watch her learn and think about the amazing support she may be for someone in the future.”

Animal Tales is a recurring Sun Journal feature about animals and their people. Have an idea for Animal Tales? Call Lindsay Tice at 689-2854 or email her at [email protected].

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