Volunteer raises pups for the blind

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Rogers - posted Mon., Jan. 20, 2014
Kim Salvas takes out tennis balls for Zelda's play time. Photos by D. Coffey.
Kim Salvas takes out tennis balls for Zelda's play time. Photos by D. Coffey.

Kim Salvas zigzagged through the lunch tables in the cafeteria at Rogers Corporation on Jan. 17. Zelda, her pup in training, followed behind on a gentle lead. She left the dog to lean against a wall 10 feet from a salad bar while she helped herself. A few times she had to tell the dog to stay. But before Salvas could finish paying, the pup couldn’t help herself. An employee had dropped a piece of lettuce on the floor and Zelda went to investigate.

Salvas is a volunteer puppy-raiser for the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation, an organization that trains German shepherds to help people who are legally blind. It’s her job to take an eight-week-old pup into her home, raise it for 14 months, and then let it go serve its job.

Hers is a 24/7 commitment. She has to house train the dog, teach it basic commands and manage through the puppy’s chewing stage. She has to walk it, play with it and let it sleep in her bedroom, though not on the bed. Over the course of those 14 months, she will familiarize the dog with retail and grocery stores, take it into restaurants and expose it to all sorts of experiences. Loud noises, busy sidewalks, children pulling her fur, rambunctious family gatherings – these are all tests of sorts. A Fidelco dog has to be able to take them in stride.

Zelda is the fourth pup that Salvas has raised. “I needed to give back,” she said. She always loved dogs, but when she lost two to cancer, she couldn’t bring herself to get another pet. She did some research, liked what she learned about Fidelco, and applied. “I thought about what would cripple me the most,” she said. “These dogs give people their independence, their freedom.”

Zelda isn’t the only one Salvas has to train, however. The dog’s red cape is supposed to keep people at bay. When Zelda is on her lead and wearing the cape, people are not supposed to pat her. One of the worst culprits was Salvas’ own sister who lives next door. She’d sneak Zelda treats. “These dogs don’t get anything for free,” Salvas told her. The treats still come occasionally, but now they come with requests to sit or stay.

Salvas has a busy job. Rogers Corporation is a materials technology leader serving clients in 66 countries. As IT manager, she spends much of her time on the computer, on the telephone and in meetings. She keeps a crate in her office for Zelda. The dog attends meetings and goes to lunch with her. After lunch, Salvas throws tennis balls for her. She calls it obedience training with a twist.
The dog was asked to sit, stay, find it and lay down. Salvas held her hand at her side, palm facing out. “Target,” she said, and Zelda tapped her nose to Salvas’ palm. The command will be used by the dog’s eventual partner. Zelda will put herself in place so a harness can be put on her. 

Before becoming a volunteer, Salvas had to fill out an application, visit two Saturday classes, have one home visit and attend an orientation. Once approved and paired with a pup, she had to commit to weekly socialization and training sessions at the Fidelco Camp in Bloomfield, Conn. Fidelco staff guide raisers in puppy rearing and behavior training. The organization also pays for medical expenses including shots and spaying and neutering costs. Volunteers absorb the cost of feeding the dogs, and they must purchase approved brands through Fidelco.  

Not all dogs make it through the training program. Some are deemed ineligible for guide dog work. One of Salvas’ dogs was a shepherd in constant motion. He became a search and rescue dog. Salvas is pretty confident that Zelda will make it as a guide dog. She’ll have to turn Zelda in soon. The dog is 14 months old. A call can come any time to return her. She’ll have two weeks to do it.

Salvas follows a pattern whenever she says goodbye. She’ll return Zelda on the last possible Sunday. On the Friday before, she’ll bring Zelda into work so her colleagues can say goodbye. She always has someone go with her when she returns a dog. “I cry all the way home,” she admitted.

She’ll be sad for a while. She’ll take some time off. Then she’ll apply for another pup. “I know I’m affecting someone’s life,” she said.
For more information go to www.fidelco.org, call 860-243-4047 or e-mail puppyraisers@fidelco.org.

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