Livingston County couple train Leader Dogs
Howell – — Jay Miller makes no secret about it: "I prefer dogs over people," he said.
For 17 years, Miller has had dogs in his life, first as a volunteer with Paws for a Cause, and now as a puppy raiser for the Rochester Hills-based Leader Dogs for the Blind, which provides guide dogs to the visually impaired.
"I wanted to give back to society," he said.
Miller and his wife, Carolyn, are raising Kyler, a 7-month-old black Labrador they named after Kyler Elsworth, whose fourth-down tackle sealed Michigan State's Rose Bowl victory over Stanford on Jan. 1.
Raising a Leader Dog is a three-step process, and the Millers are the second phase — puppy raisers.
They volunteer to host a puppy, and during this training phase the couple teaches basic obedience, while socializing the dog as much as possible to everyday life.
To help with that process, Kyler, accompanies the Millers on their movie dates or when they go shopping.
They take her on long walks to expose the puppy to sounds, movement and other people, as well as vehicles.
The couple also are tasked with teaching the dog basic obedience commands, such as sit or stay, and good manners.
"They figure out pretty quickly what you're looking for," Jay Miller said.
The Millers also are teaching Kyler the difference between play time and work time. When they put on her Leader Dog vest and leash, Kyler pays attention to the person holding her leash.
"When the vest is on, they have to sit and heel," Jay Miller said. "Even at the car, the dog knows something is different. It is interesting to see the difference between in uniform and out of uniform."
Out of uniform, Carolyn Miller said, Kyler is allowed "to just be a puppy."
Kyler, who clearly has her moments of rambunctiousness and craziness, is a puppy from a litter born to Glory, a black Labrador hosted by Bruce and Betsy Hundley of Genoa Township.
The Hundleys got involved with the program after they had to euthanize their dog, Betsy Hundley said.
"It was very hard on us, so we decided to get involved in the beginning of the life cycle instead of the end," she said. "Glory is our third puppy to raise for Leader Dogs."
Puppy raisers have the dog at their home for 12 months to 15 months, and then they are turned into Leader Dogs for formal training.
Bruce Hundley said the puppies know that when the harness is on, it's time to work.
"When they put the harness on, the dogs dip their head; they love to go," he said.
Not all the dogs, however, will become Leader Dogs.
The Hundleys' first puppy was pulled from the program when it was learned her litter had a genetic issue, and she was retired, living out her days as someone's pet. Their second puppy is in service with a woman who lives in Wisconsin.
Some of the dogs that do not succeed are given to rescue groups that find them homes.
When it came time to turn Glory in to the Leader Dogs program, the Hundleys believed that she would succeed because she was very smart.
They were surprised when they received a call from Leader Dogs officials asking if they wanted Glory back.
She was so smart she was pulled for breeder stock, Betsy Hundley said.
Jay Miller said one of the hardest parts about hosting the puppies is that other people are not always respectful of the dog's position.
When the dog is wearing a vest or a bandanna that identifies it as a Leader Dog, people should not just walk up and pet the dog, he said, because the dog is working and cannot be distracted.
Distractions could lead to errors that could cause harm to the visually impaired, such as not stopping for traffic.
"The toughest part is permanently having a puppy," Jay Miller said.
"Just when the dog is super well-behaved, we turn him in. You know when it's time. When you're in public and the dog is perfectly behaved, it sits and stays, and then you start over."
All the tough moments, however, are worth it.
"The dogs get placed with someone and it changes their life," he said. "It's incredible."