Christiana Cole, 13, of Bowie knows she’s on borrowed time with Juniper, a friendly eight-month-old black Labrador retriever standing close to her feet and expectantly awaiting a treat.
While Christiana has fed, walked and trained Juniper since the dog was two months old, she knows they’ll only have another 10 months together.
Christiana has been raising Juniper for the New York-based charity Guiding Eyes, which breeds and trains guide dogs for the visually impaired.
“I’ve always wanted a [permanent household] dog, but I was never allowed to get one,” she said. “[But] it’s really hard. They’re your dog and then they leave you.”
Christiana is part of about a third of families training puppies where the teen is the primary care provider in the Bowie area, said Carrie Barnett, puppy program regional manager for Guiding Eyes. Puppy raisers are responsible for training a dog in basic skills such as sitting and waiting as well as house manners, such as not jumping on furniture or chewing on everything in sight, Christiana said.
While generally, trainers nationwide are adults or senior citizens, teenagers typically help train the puppies because they love dogs or are seeking service credit hours, Barnett said.
There are about 13 families in Bowie and the surrounding Prince George’s County area — out of about 50 families statewide — raising dogs for Guiding Eyes, according to Guiding Eye records. The number of teens involved in the program seems to have increased either due to increased youth interest or as schools require community service hours, Barnett said.
Christiana’s efforts raising her first dog, Selina, from February 2011 to June were nominated by Guiding Eyes for the President’s Volunteer Service Award, which she received in 2012. The award is given out by the federal government to individuals nominated by an organization for their volunteer work, according to the award’s website.
Barnett said she nominated Christiana for the service award because despite being a teenager, she carries the bulk of the responsibility of raising her pet such as teaching her dog basic commands, filling out paperwork for the dog and taking it to area training workshops.
“She’s probably one of the younger raisers I’ve ever had,” Barnett said. “She’s just a mature young lady.”
Before training a dog, volunteers have to go through workshops, Barnett said. Allowing teens to train a dog can be a bit risky, as not all teens have the maturity to raise a puppy, Barnett said.
“Some of them start out as doing it for school credit or volunteer hours, but they do have to have that true commitment,” Barnett said. “It is a 24/7 commitment.”
In 2011, Mackenzie Moore of Fort Washington began training her first dog, a black Labrador named Felicia, in part she said to fulfill a service requirement from Washington International School in Washington, D.C.
“It was a minimum of 30 hours and I think I ended up doing over 500,” Moore, 17, said.
After turning over Felicia in October, Moore said she is now training her second black Labrador, Starry.
Dogs typically stay with families from about two months old until they turn 18 months old, when the charity takes back the dogs for specialized training, said Pat Clark of Bowie, the former regional manager for Guiding Eyes, who now volunteers for the organization.
Having the dog pays dividends for teenagers, said Mackenzie Moore’s mother, Kim Moore.
“Teenagers have a tendency to focus on themselves,” she said. “It really makes them focus on raising someone else.”