Tim and Naoko Zoerlein were not dog people. They didn’t have a dog—or any pet—in the time that they were married or after the birth of their daughter, Maria. “Whatever the stereotype of a dog person is, we’re not,” says Tim Zoerlein.
At the age of 5, a benign brain tumor was found in Maria, diagnosed as Craniopharyngioma. Though it was removed successfully, there was damage to her optic nerve that caused her to become completely blind. Prior to her blindness, Zoerlein describes Maria as a normal 5-year-old when it came to dogs, “but some point after she lost her vision we noticed that she was kind of uncomfortable around dogs.”
With a guide dog being a possible future option for Maria, who turns 12 at the end of November, the Zoerleins thought they should learn more about what that may entail. They found Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a nonprofit organization and accredited school for guide dog training, and soon were trained to be puppy raisers. As puppy raisers, the family welcomes a puppy into their home and begins to train the dog in the foundation of skills they will need to become an effective guide dog.
This presented a couple of advantages from the Zoerlein’s perspective. First, it would help Maria get more comfortable around dogs and help them all understand what is needed to raise and care for a guide dog; and second, it was a chance to teach Maria about community service.
“There are so many charities that offer service and products and everything for the blind, so we’re the beneficiary of many of those, so we wanted an opportunity for Maria to give back a little as well,” says Zoerlein.
A 2-and-1/2-month-old yellow lab puppy named Ginny was the family’s first dog in April 2017. Zoerlein recalls some initial hesitancy from Maria, especially with a puppy who doesn’t immediately know Maria’s limitations, but he says in a matter of days that uncomfortableness began to fade. “Ginny figured out how to interact with Maria, too,” Zoerlein says. Maria was even able to help with Ginny’s training in small ways, like feeding her.
In June, the Zoerleins, who live in Franconia, returned Ginny to GEB to continue her training. At that point, Maria’s skittishness was gone as she would play and care for Ginny. The whole family found the experience to be a success, so much so that they received their second puppy, another yellow lab named Pippi, in September. Maria had a countdown until Pippi’s arrival according to Zoerlein.
The Zoerleins have now become part of a community of puppy raisers for GEB, with some who have raised as many as 20 dogs. “I don’t think we’ll be done with this just after our second dog,” says Zoerlein.
It’s fair to say then that the entire Zoerlein family is now dog converts. “When you live in a house when you can’t get rid of the dog hair even after you do your best to vacuum and clean … then I guess you’re a dog person.” // guidingeyes.org
The Zoerleins first dog, Ginny, passed her screening test to become a service dog and is now in formal training to become a guide dog. If successful, she’ll be matched with a visually impaired person near the end of the year.