It started off innocently enough.
Janet Cody, still getting over the death of her dog, Murphy, in 2006, wanted the wagging tails but none of the heartbreak that comes with losing a dog.
So she signed up to be a sitter for puppies that were being raised for the Guiding Eyes for the Blind program.
"My husband said, 'Well, this is the best: we can just rent a dog,'" Cody says.
Before she knew it, Cody was caring for litters of puppies (and their moms) who needed foster homes before being placed individually in the hands of volunteer puppy raisers. She also became a puppy raiser herself and is currently raising 14-month-old Iowa, a black Labrador retriever, for Guiding Eyes.
On April 29, Cody went to Patterson, N.Y., to pick up her fourth litter of puppies as a Home Litter Care volunteer. Five squirmy week-old German shepherd puppies and their mom, 2-year-old Nessie, came back with Cody to her home in Old Lyme, where she'll keep them for five weeks, until they are almost 7 weeks old.
German shepherds are a relatively new addition to the program. About 95 percent of the dogs in the Guiding Eyes program are Labs, with the rest made up of Golden retrievers, Golden Labradors, and German shepherds, said Gales Ferry resident Valerie Hazlin, who is Guiding Eyes' regional coordinator.
During that time, Cody will spend what amounts to almost a full work day caring for the puppies - first cleaning up after them and later introducing them to puppy food and to as many new things as possible: stairs, new toys, new people, new surfaces to walk on.
Bubble wrap, buckets, balls, blow dryers, and puppy-loving neighbors will all come in handy as Cody slowly exposes the puppies to unfamiliar situations that they'll have to conquer with confidence if they want to become guide dogs for the blind.
And while no dog lover would ever consider picking up and handling tiny puppies a chore, there's a reason why Cody does it frequently.
"My homework during those first few weeks is to massage them," Cody says. "It helps the puppies connect and establish a relationship with a human being."
The puppies - Baron, Berta, Bishop, Bliss, and Brandy - at 2 weeks old are squirmy and disoriented. They sleep for the majority of the day, except when Nessie walks by and her scent stirs them awake. They nurse eagerly, frantically, and when Nessie decides they've had enough, they yelp and blindly search for her absent body.
"Every day, something changes," Cody says. "A week ago, they were like fuzzy caterpillars. They just kind of move along and grunt, grunt, grunt. But now they're definitely smelling but also starting to see Nessie when she walks by."
During their time with Cody, the puppies will also learn to sit and lay down and get used to being in a crate. The training the puppies receive on their path to becoming guide dogs is not unlike the education humans get, Cody says.
"I guess you could think of the puppy-raising as more sending them through elementary, middle school, high school," Cody says. "And what I'm doing now with the home litter care would really be newborn babies through maybe kindergarten."
Guiding Eyes, which has been breeding dogs since the mid-1960s, is always in need of volunteers to help raise the 500 or so puppies bred every year, Hazlin said.
About half of the 500 puppies pass Guiding Eyes' rigorous standards to become guide dogs, Hazlin said. The rest become other types of service dogs such as police dogs or are adopted out to homes as pets, Hazlin said.
Raising a dog for a year and a half and then giving it up for the program is a bittersweet experience, Cody says.
"It's kind of like saying goodbye to your child at college," says Cody, who has two children, one of whom is graduating from college this month. "You're sad, but you're happy because you know that dog's just going to go off and have a lot of fun and do some wonderful things. ? They have five months of their college, to be trained as a guide, and then you go to their graduation, just like you do with (your children).
"And you meet the person that they are teamed up with, almost like a marriage. So it's like a graduation or a wedding, all in the same day," she adds. "And then, there you go, you just can't be happier."