Melissa Harrington has always been a highly motivated and driven person. After 20 years of service as a Navy commander, she was faced with a hole in her life, and a lot more freetime. That’s when she turned to the nonprofit, Guide Dog Foundation.
Guide Dog Foundation dedicates its efforts to providing people in need with life changing service animals. The organization spends around $50,000 to breed, train, and raise each dog, and then partners the animal with a person who is blind or visually impaired, free of charge.
Harrington started working with Guide Dog Foundation in 2002, shortly after giving birth to her third daughter, when she decided to add a “puppy with a purpose” to the family. Through the nonprofit, Harrington has worked as a puppy raiser, and is now raising her 21st pup.
“It’s so good for the kids to learn about what giving really looks like,” said Harrington. “You can write a check, but this is a very personal way of giving, where you’re going to love something for a year or more and then you’re going to give it away.” The Harrington’s 18-month-old Golden is named SWAP — an acronym for Sunny With A Purpose in honor of the TODAY Show’s former pup with a purpose, Sunny.
Harrington is pleased with the progress that SWAP has made in her preliminary training so far, and is optimistic that this “spicy golden” will make a wonderful guide dog. Though she’s energetic and loves to play, once she has her vest on, the pup is all business. “SWAP gets into this other state, like, ‘I’m here. I know what I’m doing. I know what I’m supposed to be doing,’” explained Harrington. “It lets me see the working side of her, and I really like it.”
As with all puppy training, socialization is key. SWAP has tagged along on errands and grocery trips, and has even visited a few popular landmarks, like the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument.
Harrington’s husband, Bill Hoeft, is a retired Navy captain who now works near the Pentagon. SWAP is lucky enough to get to tag along with Hoeft to meetings, just as the other Harrington guide puppies have done in the past. “It’s such a great experience because the Pentagon is immense,” Harrington explained. “The dogs can get into this giant building and walk around. Sometimes there will be military dogs at the entrances.”
Although having to “turn in” the pups after raising them for over a year would break anyone’s heart, Harrington believes it’s all worth it for one special day. During the graduation ceremonies, called “Celebration Saturdays,” Harrington is able to meet the people who have been matched with the dogs she has worked so hard to raise. “It is so special and absolutely motivates you to keep going,” she said. “I think this is just one of the most fulfilling things that I’ve done.”
If you’d like to learn more about Guide Dog Foundation and how to become a puppy raiser, be sure to check out their website!