Sonia Holwegner has a busy house with her seven kids, but she and her family have taken on a new responsibility: raising a guide dog puppy for the visually impaired.

Holwegner’s children range in age from seven to 18. She says they are all very excited about the puppy — which they will have for the next year and a half.

“They loved it because, of course, it’s a little puppy and you get to see a picture of this little puppy and they’re really cute,” says Holwegner.

Her 14-year-old daughter, Tatum, says she was thrilled when she first heard about the puppy.

“My first thought I had in my mind was like, ‘I think she’ll grow onto it and we’re just going to keep the puppy,’” she says.

“But now I know that he’s going to go to a good family that needs him so I’m excited and happy that we’re going to be helping a family,” Tatum continues.

Holwegner explains, “We basically, as puppy trainers, train them just to be nice animals and polite, greet people politely, do escalators, and just socialize so that they’re not scared and nervous in a certain situation.”

Holwegner’s training puppy is a golden labrador named Shep. He is very energetic and is a big responsibility to take care of.

Training a guide dog

As a puppy trainer, Holwegner will have the puppy for about a year and a half and then he will go onto more advanced training with an organization called B.C. and Alberta Guide Dogs.

“At 18 months they will go to an adult trainer and they will do school every day so he will learn things like how to push a button to open up a wheelchair door for his person,” she says.

She continues, “But we just train them that these places that they are going to go are good.”

Holwegner teaches the puppy to stop and sit at sidewalk curbs, stairs, and doors.

She focuses on teaching small things to the puppy that will improve the lives of those they serve in the future.

Guide dog training puppies cannot use treats as reward during their training, because it is important they learn to listen without them.

As a guide dog, Shep will not be able to be distracted by food or treats that are around him while he is working so he is congratulated with physical praise opposed to treats for good behaviour.

B.C. and Alberta Guide Dogs was founded in 1996 and began training guide dogs for the visually-impaired. Since then they have been able to expand, now training guide dogs, autism support dogs, and PTSD service dogs.

Sandra Cramer, the ‘Puppy Raising Supervisor’ for Alberta Guide Dogs, is in charge of helping the puppy trainers teach their dogs all the skills they will need in order to become a working service dog.

Cramer says that, to be a good volunteer, you have to have lots of time to commit to raising your puppy.

“Raising puppies is a lot of work, especially at the very beginning. So for our organization, we are looking for people who either don’t work or work very flexible part-time hours,” she says.

“Our puppies need to get a lot of socialization exposure, so our volunteers bring them out and about with them when they are going to do things and socialize them in all types of environments,” Cramer continues.

A challenging task

Holwegner admits that there are some unexpected challenges that have come with raising this puppy with her big family.

“My seven-year-old was a little bit jealous of my extra time I had to put into the puppy,” Holwegner says. “It kind of takes away from her time a little bit.”

“ Shep has a bit of separation anxiety, which is a bit of a challenge because he doesn’t like to be left [alone], but we have definitely worked on it.”

Holwegner says that she’s had to learn to plan out every day in advance to make sure everything runs smoothly, especially with the puppy.

“Sometimes we plan for him to be at a puppy border or being looked after so that we can have a couple of hours without him because right now he is a lot of work,” she says.

“He cannot be left unattended. Like, I can go to the gym in the morning and leave him in his pen for like a half an hour, 45 minutes, but that’s about it right now,” says Holwegner.

When the puppy is fully trained, he will go everywhere with his owners, so Holwegner is slowly starting to introduce him to public spaces to get him comfortable with them.

Holwegner says that now all her kids are in school she has more time to dedicate to training.

“I can’t really train at night because I have to focus on the kids,” she says. “I wouldn’t have done it if the kids weren’t in school full-time because I wouldn’t have had the time.”

Not all are meant to be guide dogs

Cramer says that it is very important to make sure that the dogs enjoy what they are doing. Some dogs love working as a service dog, but others do not.

“The temperament required to be a service dog is a lot of pressure and for some dogs, it is just not the right career for them and we don’t want to force any dog to work that doesn’t want to work,” Cramer explains.

Not all dogs that go through the training program will graduate and become a working service dog.

Because the type of personality that is needed for an effective service dog is hard to find, many trained dogs will be put up for adoption once they are deemed unfit for service.

The volunteers who trained the dog for its first 18 months are given the first opportunity to adopt.

“Some of our volunteers will choose to let somebody else raise the dog but we do have a long list of people who are interested in adopting what we call our ‘non-qualifiers’,” Cramer says.

Holwegner has always told her children that the puppy will be leaving them and going on to — hopefully — become a successful guide dog.

“I think they might be a little bit sad when he leaves, but we’re preparing the kids for that, especially the little seven-year-old,’ she says. “Reminding her that he’s not really ours, we’re just raising him for 18 months.”

Editor: Holly Maller |

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