As a requirement to prepare for her upcoming bat mitzvah, Ava Leshem ’24 took on a community service project that will aid and empower the blind by raising a Fidelco puppy. When she talks about the project, Leshem’s enthusiasm is genuine; she just lights up. “I like helping people, and I love dogs. I took both of those interests, combined them and decided to raise a Fidelco puppy,” she said.
Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation partners blind people with highly trained German Shepherd guide dogs due to the breeds’ smarts and stamina. As a puppy raiser, Lesham received “Sue” at eight-weeks-old in the summer of 2017. The family already owned a rescue german shepherd/lab mix, and the two are inseparable and play with one another constantly Lesham shared.
Leshem and her family train Sue with basic commands like sit, stay and down, and they also attend classes at Fidelco. Leshem said one of the goals is to socialize the dog and expose her to real-world conditions in public spaces so that the dog is accustomed to different environments. Leshem found that the easiest way to train Sue, unsurprisingly, was with a steady reinforcement of treats when she was young. Fidelco requires those treats and all food given to the dog are purchased from the organization exclusively. The full cost of raising a Fidelco puppy is approximately $45,000. The organization provides worming, inoculations, and veterinary expenses; healthcare is provided at the training center in Bloomfield.
In her own assessment of her efforts to walk and train Sue consistently, Leshem was honest and self-aware. “I do take care of her and I always want to. But, sometimes I’ll think ‘Oh, I need to do this instead’ and not always get to the task of what I need to do with her,” she said openly. Nevertheless, she tries to carve out time from her day to assist in walking her dog in addition to balancing her school work and soccer.
Leshem will return Sue to Fidelco in December when she reaches approximately 16 months in age. From that point, Sue will be formally trained for an additional six to nine months, and the Leshem family can attend Sue’s graduation walk. “I am definitely going to miss her, but it's going to a good cause. If she doesn’t pass the training, there are other things she can do - like being a police dog and still help out in the community,” she said. Not only has this experience been a rewarding one for Leshem, but the final result of all her hard work will provide a lifelong service for another person in need.