When Ellen and Joe Aguirre turned off the freeway in San Rafael 22 years ago to check out Guide Dogs for the Blind, Ellen didn't know it would be a turning point in her life.
"We just happened to be driving by, and we had never been there," Ellen Aguirre recalled. "We thought, 'We're right here; let's check it out.'
"Coincidentally, it was graduation day, and it was open to the public," she continued. "We walked in, watched and started asking questions."
Her main question was: How could her family raise a guide dog puppy? One great way, she was told, was to get her children into 4-H, and her daughter Joelle was happy to comply.
"So my daughter started doing it at 10. My daughter and I -- basically the whole family," she said.
Since that fateful day in San Rafael, Aguirre has had a pup in her home for training almost continually.
"No one told me when I got involved that it is addicting," Aguirre said with a laugh. "It's been my drug of choice for 22 years."
The volunteer raisers receive the pups when they are 8 weeks old, and volunteers are responsible for them until age 15-16 months. Then the dog is turned back in to the San Rafael facility for its formal training.
"At that point, when the dog goes back, dog puppy raisers can choose to start the process all over again," Aguirre said. "That's usually what I do."
The first time the Aguirre family went to San Rafael to return the puppy they had lovingly raised for the past 14 months, Ellen had secretly arranged for them to pick up their next puppy at the same time. The new little pup helped make it easier to say goodbye to their first charge.
"It worked well then, so we continued doing that," Aguirre said.
Aguirre also became active in the community with puppy-raising endeavors. When the local support group, Alameda County Guide Dog Puppy Raising Club, became too large, Aguirre established the Tri-Valley chapter of Guide Dogs for the Blind in 2004. The organization is key in helping its 50 or so members with training, plus it has outings to give the puppies new experiences.
"Guide dogs need confidence to deal with whatever the big world is going to throw at it," Aguirre explained. "When the dog is returned, it basically has seen it all, done it all and heard it all."
Perhaps her best-known outreach is the popular Pleasanton Pooch Parade, which she took over from Valley Humane Society 18 years ago. Pet owners gather at Lions Wayside Park with their dogs in costumes, then parade up and down Main Street as part of the First Wednesday Street Party in August.
"The community has embraced it, and it's our main fundraising event," Aguirre said. "It has helped a lot of people around here who maybe couldn't afford to raise a guide dog puppy."
Aguirre said puppy raising isn't for everyone, but when it's a fit, it's wonderful. Although it is a long time commitment, she noted, the nice thing is that people can schedule raising a puppy as events in their lives allow.
"We have had people who've had babies and said, 'Babies, puppies, that's more work than I can handle,'" she said, but when the children are older they resume puppy raising as a family.
The puppy becomes a community project, she added, because an important part of rearing the pup is having a sitter to take over during vacations or other absences. Puppy sitting is another way for people to help.
"It takes a village to raise a pup, as we say, and the puppy really benefits from going to other people's homes," Aguirre said.
Since she started the Tri-Valley puppy raising chapter, it has had 169 puppies in the program: 49 have become certified Guide Dogs, and some were trained to be other types of service dogs.
"It's a wonderful way to give back if you enjoy working with dogs," Aguirre said.
* Ellen and Joe Aguirre have lived in Pleasanton for 25 years and have two grown children, Joelle and Zachary, and a granddaughter, Lacey.
* Ellen was born in Southern California and moved to Fremont when she was 9.
* Once or twice a month, she delivers puppies to be raised to the nine Western states, driving a specially equipped truck on trips that last two to eight days.
* She was a scrapbooking and photo organization coach for 18 years.
* She studied horticulture at Ohlone College and worked in the field for six years for a plant rental business.
* To learn more about raising a puppy for Guide Dogs for the Blind, visit trivalleyguidedogs.com.