If your organization relies on volunteer puppy raisers, you are probably aware of how challenging it can be to attract and retain suitable volunteers.
Volunteer puppy raisers are a crucial part of producing successful working dogs in acceptable time frames. The early training and developmental experiences provided can have a major impact on whether a puppy successfully completes its formal training.
The weight of this impact is felt by volunteers and involves large personal sacrifices on their part. It is therefore important to explore the factors that influence a volunteer’s decision to 1) sign up, and 2) return to raise more puppies.
A 2023 study by Sam Morwood and co-authors from La Trobe University’s Anthrozoology Research Group and the Centre for Service and Therapy Dogs Australia identified the following four functional motivators for puppy-raising volunteers:
- Altruism (values)
- Egoism (enhancement)
- Interacting with others (social)
- Learning new skills (understanding).
They propose that as long as enough of the volunteers’ motivational reasons are satisfied throughout their initial experiences, they will usually be willing to continue to face the challenges of puppy-raising. The results of the study showed that organizational support and practical support were the two major factors reducing the likelihood of volunteer burnout.
Research into the experience of being a guide dog puppy raiser by Chur-Hansen et al. (2015) from the University of Adelaide’s School of Psychology and School of Animal Science highlighted the difference between some volunteer’s expected benefits and their actual outcomes. Several participants anticipated physical, psychological and social perks, but found they were unexpectedly affected by sleep deprivation, frustration and stress. Managing expectations and realistically preparing volunteers is therefore important to avoid disappointment.
Here are some ideas to help you problem solve puppy raising for your organization:
Split Stages of Care
One way to ease the commitment level required by volunteers is to offer split stages of care. Guide Dogs Queensland allows volunteers to opt for 6 to 12-month periods, making the commitment level flexible. Southeastern Guide Dogs similarly offers care periods of 3, 6 or 12 months. The program at Guiding Eyes for the Blind incorporates co-raising of a puppy, including ‘puppy starters,’ ‘finishing raisers,’ and puppy sitters that fill in when the primary raisers are away. Seeing Eye Dogs of Vision Australia recruits ‘training dog carers’ for dogs over 12 months of age, providing care during the final stages of their formal training program.
The co-raising agreement option offered by Guide Dogs for the Blind allows for the shared care of a puppy between two homes simultaneously. This means the puppy may be traded weekly, fortnightly, or however often is agreed between the two parties upfront. This allows each handler to get a regular break from care duties, potentially reducing the cumulative effects of stress and prolonging their individual commitment. A possible disadvantage of this method is a lower level of consistency for the pup. Guide Dogs for the Blind stresses the importance of a regular schedule, especially when the pup is very young.
Another method is to provide specialized training in a particular area of puppy care. For example, volunteers can be ‘early education experts,’ focusing on critical early training areas. Guide Dogs for the Blind provides an Order of Training guide that lists specific skills to be taught in the first 20 weeks, such as toilet training, crate behaviour, collar cues and polite taking of food. If a volunteer learns and practises only these specific skills, they may feel more confident repeating these vital tasks on future puppies, before handing them to another volunteer for obedience classes and beyond. This also allows someone with less advanced training skills or a more demanding work/home schedule the chance to contribute to puppy raising after the intense early months are completed. At the other end of the age range, Assistance Dogs Australia recruits volunteers to be Advanced Training B&Bers, looking after and attending advanced training classes with older dogs, usually over 14 months.
The associated pride of being an ‘expert,’ ‘senior’ or ‘advanced’ volunteer in a certain area may be a motivating factor for some people, falling under Sam Moorwood et al’s functional motivator of egoism. A study by Serpell & Duffy (2016) from the University of Pennsylvania confirmed that volunteers who have raised a puppy before are more likely to raise a puppy that demonstrates positive behavioural outcomes, highlighting the value of repeated experience. Repeated experience may be encouraged if it is refined to a shorter time frame and a specific set of skills.
Organizational and practical support are key drivers of volunteer retention. In Chur-Hansen et al.’s survey of guide dog puppy volunteers, insufficient organizational support was a complaint made by several participants. Among the concerns included:
- A perceived lack of compassion for volunteers, instead showing greater concern for the dog
- Feeling uninformed or ill-prepared before receiving a puppy
- Feeling as though their problems were not listened to or acted upon.
A similar interview-based study by Mai et al. (2020) found that although volunteers were aware of available support resources, they were often hesitant to reach out for help for fear of judgement; they did not want to be seen as failing in their duties. The researchers suggested that, alongside encouraging puppy raisers to ask questions, it might be beneficial to suggest the disadvantages of not seeking help. This is based on a social science study by Grayson et al. (1997) of tertiary students who demonstrated improved help-seeking behaviours when they perceived potential negative judgement for not seeking help.
Providing high-quality, hands-on support can be expensive, however, detracting from the cost-saving benefits of volunteers. One way to counteract this is to provide pre-placement group training events, wherein one staff member can inform and answer the questions of multiple volunteers at once. Guide Dogs for the Blind requires volunteers to attend several puppy club meetings before being selected as a puppy raiser.
Another way to reduce costs is to utilize skilled volunteers. Some schools offer their new puppy raiser volunteers access to a “buddy” program, wherein a new or inexperienced volunteer is partnered with an experienced, skilled volunteer who is willing to support newcomers and answer questions that may be considered silly, unimportant, or embarrassing – what do I put in a kong? Is this behavior normal for a puppy? Can you show me how to do something again?
Optional puppy raiser clubs are also provided by several organisations, such as Southeastern Guide Dogs, allowing raisers to socially and emotionally support each other with minimal financial input.
Another way to provide ongoing support is through the use of technology. Organizations such as Guide Dogs Queensland have developed a volunteer website to make puppy management easier for carers. Volunteers can order food, see their puppy’s details and access information whenever it suits them. Guide Dogs for the Blind provides extensive information online, as well as informative YouTube videos. Offering manuals and FAQs online allows users to word-search their issues.
However, some volunteers interviewed in Mai et al.’s study reported being overwhelmed and off-put by having too much textual information to read. A program supervisor said the uptake and compliance of written information was often low. They therefore suggested a multi-medial approach, incorporating the combined use of online libraries, video, phone, group sessions, and in-person support. The use of smartphone apps is an area that could be explored for puppy raisers in the future.
Reward and Recognition programs
A study by Tse (2020) on volunteer retention found that a “greater level of felt respect for volunteer work is positively related to volunteers’ retention rates.” Volunteers who do not feel they receive sufficient social or emotional rewards may find volunteering more stressful than rewarding. This highlights the importance of recognising and rewarding puppy raisers for their hard work and dedication along the way.
This may be particularly important for those who take on difficult roles, such as early training specialization. Southeastern Guide Dogs has a “Puppy Raiser Hall of Fame” on their website to honor and thank people who have raised numerous puppies. Guide Dogs SA/NT holds an annual celebration for volunteers, handing out individual certificates of achievement. Guide Dogs UK allows the public to nominate volunteers for various awards. Recognition via social media, interviews, and positive feedback from staff can all contribute to feelings of respect, and that the hard work is all ‘worth it.’
Marketing efforts can focus on how valued volunteers are and will continue to be throughout their journey, as well as emphasizing ongoing support from the organization and peers. Addressing common issues such as expectation management, varying commitment levels, and feelings of incompetency should be a high priority when considering puppy raiser volunteer attraction and retention.
Written by Kerri Duncan
- Assistance Dogs Australia, 2023, ‘Puppy Volunteering, ‘ accessed 31 July 2023, <https://www.assistancedogs.org.au/support-us/puppy-volunteering/>
- Chur-Hansen, A. et al., 2015, ‘The Experience of Being a Guide Dog Puppy Raiser Volunteer: A Longitudinal Qualitative Collective Case Study,’ Animals, vol 5 iss 1 <https://doi.org/10.3390/ani5010001>
- Guide Dogs for the Blind, 2023, ‘Puppy Raising Manual,’ accessed 31 July 2023, <https://www.guidedogs.com/volunteering/puppy-raising/puppy-raising-manual>
- Guide Dogs Queensland, 2023, ‘Volunteer with dogs,’ accessed 31 July 2023, <https://qld.guidedogs.com.au/get-involved/volunteer/volunteer-with-dogs/#puppyraising>
- Guide Dogs SA/NT, 2023, ‘Guide Dogs’, accessed 31 July 2023, <https://sant.guidedogs.com.au/>
- Guide Dogs UK, 2023, ‘Volunteering Opportunities,’ accessed 31 July 2023, <https://www.guidedogs.org.uk/how-you-can-help/volunteering-for-guide-dogs/>
- Guiding Eyes for the Blind, 2023, ‘Become a Puppy Raiser,’ accessed 31 July 2023, <https://www.guidingeyes.org/puppy-raising/become-a-puppy-raiser/>
- Mai, D., et al., 2020, ‘Raising an Assistance Dog Puppy—Stakeholder Perspectives on What Helps and What Hinders,’ Animals, vol 10 iss 1, <https://www.mdpi.com/2076-2615/10/1/128>
- Mai, D. et al., 2021, ‘Beyond puppy selection—considering the role of puppy raisers in bringing out the best in assistance dog puppies,’ Journal of Veterinary Behavior, vol 42 <https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S155878782030157X>
- Morwood, S. et al., 2023, ‘Exploring the Experiences of Volunteer Assistance Dog Puppy Raisers from the Same Program at Two Australian University Campuses,’ Animals, vol 13 iss 9 <https://www.mdpi.com/2076-2615/13/9/1482>
- Seeing Eye Dogs Vision Australia, 2023, ‘What is training dog caring,’ accessed 31 July 2023, <https://sed.visionaustralia.org/what-training-dog-caring>
- Serpell, J. & Duffy, D., 2016, ‘Aspects of Juvenile and Adolescent Environment Predict Aggression and Fear in 12-Month-Old Guide Dogs,’ Frontiers in Veterinary Science, vol 3 <https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fvets.2016.00049/full>
- Southeastern Guide Dogs, 2023, ‘Raise a puppy,’ accessed 31 July 2023, <https://www.guidedogs.org/get-involved/raise-a-puppy/>
- Tse, D., 2020, ‘Volunteers’ Felt Respect and Its Associations With Volunteering Retention, Daily Affect, Well-being, and Mortality,’ The Journals of Gerontology, vol 75, Iss 8, <https://academic.oup.com/psychsocgerontology/article/75/8/1625/5122866>