10 Jan

It was bittersweet for Debra Smith to see Gilbert leave for his first day of school.

Gilbert is a Labrador retriever she raised for 14 months in the hopes that he could make the cut to become a service dog for the Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind. Having been a foster parent to Gilbert since he was nine weeks old, she formed a bond with him. But then she had to say goodbye.

“It’s bittersweet because you know they’re going on to something really important,” she says, adding saying goodbye is one of the toughest parts of the process.

Kristen’s Kritters featured a photo of the adorable puppy when he was just 10 weeks old, so when Ms. Smith sent me an updated photo, I had to follow up.

Gilbert left for the training school in July, where it will be determined if he can become a service dog. He was 16 months old and 75 pounds when he left.

CGDB places puppies with foster families called ‘puppy walkers’ who raise the pups for 12 to 18 months. The walkers gradually socialize the puppies to as many different, everyday environments as possible.

“He went to the office with me every day, attended meetings and presentations, visited classrooms, swimming pools and sports events,” recalls Ms. Smith. “Along with his basic obedience training, he got to practise his obedience skills everywhere, and he grew to be calm and confident, anywhere we went.”

Ms. Smith and her husband got involved with CGDB because they love dogs and wanted to volunteer. Gilbert is the third that has been fostered at the Smith household.

All of the dogs Ms. Smith has cared for have been easy going and easily trained, but different. Gilbert was more serious than the others.

“Gilbert was more thoughtful,” she says. “He would rather play with one toy than 17 toys at once. And he loved to sleep.”

But that didn’t make him any less appealing. Ms. Smith says he kept her great company.

“He loved to go anywhere,” she says. “He was a great dog for just being with me.”

If Gilbert doesn’t pass his tests, then she will have the opportunity to adopt him.

“That’s a million-dollar question,” says Ms. Smith, who adds she will decide at the time if it comes to that.

Ms. Smith encourages people who are interested and meet the criteria to sign up for the program. In fact, the organization needs the dogs to be socialized in all different environments, whether it’s on a farm or in a busy downtown area, and with different people, from university students to retirees.

If Gilbert passes his tests, Ms. Smith will be thrilled to attend his graduation.