Scott Guebert has three children ages 13 and older, but during a recent two-week stretch, his family provided around-the-clock care to a 9-month-old with four legs and a wagging tail.
Guebert, the disability coordinator for Patrick Henry Community College, served as a “puppy sitter” for the Roanoke-based Saint Francis Service Dogs organization. During that span, the Gueberts welcomed “Boon,” a 9-month-old black Labrador retriever, into their hearts and home.
“It’s fun; it’s enjoyable. And I think what’s been really beneficial is that everywhere I’ve gone, he’s such a conversation piece,” said Guebert. “People want to know, ‘Who is he? What is he?’ So it gives me a chance to talk about Saint Francis. Just in general, I think it’s done a whole lot to create general awareness, because when most people think of service dogs, they think of guide dogs for the blind. But guide dogs for the blind come from other agencies. He’s going to be a service dog for all other types of people with disabilities.”
Boon’s regular home is the Bland Correctional Center, where selected inmates get to raise Saint Francis puppies that have the chance to become full-time service dogs. Though a dog’s long-term duties aren’t determined until he is at least 18 months old, each will have the chance to assist people with disabilities ranging from mobility impairments to autism, diabetes or epilepsy.
“Because I’m the disability services counselor at PHCC, I guess I’m probably more cognizant of these types of services that are out there,” said Guebert. “So that’s another one of the reasons why I wanted to do this, because I’m interested in supporting and providing assistance to people with disabilities, whether I’m serving them here at the college, or in this case, helping somebody indirectly by working with their dog.”
Last year, the Guebert family — Scott’s wife, Tracy, and his three children, Emmie, Erich and Ethan — lost their family pet, Nannie, a dachshund mix. A few months ago, they decided they were ready to welcome another animal into their home, if just for a fortnight.
So Guebert applied to be a puppy sitter with the Saint Francis organization. After an in-home interview, they were selected to care for Boon, who periodically visits different sitters for two-week stretches. These visits are designed to help socialize the dog with various public settings, new smells and the experience of meeting strangers.
Serving as a puppy sitter is not all fun and games, however. The dogs are raised in a structured environment at the Bland facility, and their schedules can’t be abandoned when they stay with sitters.
“(Saint Francis) provides the food, and you have to feed him schedule. He has a sleep schedule, so he has to go into his crate at a certain time and come out at a certain time,” said Guebert. “He can run free in the house, but if you cannot directly supervise him, he has to be crated. And when he goes outside he has to be on a leash. You can’t tie him up to a clothesline or post.”
Boon spent much of his visit walking beside Guebert, who took him to work at PHCC. Guebert specifically requested a dog who was approved for work visits, partly because he didn’t like the thought of Boon spending daytime hours at home in his crate, but also because he knew the canine would help raise awareness on the college campus.
“We haven’t had any people on campus with service dogs that have accompanied any student or person on campus that I’m aware of. But it’s only a matter of time, so hopefully this will make people think about it and not be left surprised if they see someone come in with an animal,” said Guebert. “They’ll be like, ‘Oh, that’s right. We’ve had people with dogs before.’”
Saint Francis dogs can be trained to complete amazing tasks, from fetching items by name from a different room to alerting an owner that a seizure is oncoming, alerting a diabetic owner that his blood sugar is dangerously low or even dialing 911 for help using little more than a pre-programmed phone button and a wet-nosed snout, Guebert said.
The experience of puppy sitting was worthwhile, and he plans to do it again later this year, but probably not until the fall.
“It was more work than I anticipated. It’s like having another child — not an infant necessarily, but they get up at a certain time. So I have to get up earlier than I normally do,” explained Guebert. “Normally, I don’t have to think about my schedule. Now, I’m like, wait a minute; no, I can’t do that because I’ve got the dog with me; or I’m going here, so is the crate in the right car?”
After all, he’s got some family vacations planned. It’s easier to enjoy those without a 9-month-old in tow — especially one who would like nothing more than to escape from his leash and chase squirrels.
For more information on the Saint Francis Service Dogs organization, visit www.saintfrancisdogs.org.