WALNUT CREEK -- For Walnut Creek's Marcia and Jerry Morucci, dog means family.
For Southern California's David Helkenn, dog means freedom.
When Marcia, Jerry and David met for the first time at Guide Dogs for the Blind's graduation day this June, dog meant everything.
"At graduation, there's not a dry eye there," Marcia says, in a late October interview in the home she and Jerry have owned for 49 years. "It's fabulous because it completes the circle."
The "circle" begins when a two-month old Labrador retriever, golden retriever, or Labrador/retriever cross is placed in the home of a qualified, volunteer puppy raiser. The cost of training and veterinary care is completely covered by Guide Dogs for the Blind; the only cost to the puppy raisers is the food. Approximately one year later, the dogs are sent to GDB's schools in California and Oregon for intensive training. After several weeks, a human-dog team emerges.
The loop is made permanent when people like the Moruccis shed their tears at the sight of their beloved pup embarking on a lifetime of service and love in the hands of a visually impaired person like Helkenn.
Marcia, 70, has been a secretary at Burton Valley Elementary School for 15 years. Jerry, 73, has been a meat cutter, court reporter, and owner of a deli and butcher shop. Today, he leads walking tours in San Francisco's Italian neighborhoods. Together, they and their three children have raised and loved dogs, and lost them to old age.
"We had to put a dog down and I said, 'Never again,'" Marcia says. "When you give up a guide dog, it breaks your heart, but you see how it will change someone's life."
Jerry is equally moved.
"When we took the class before they'd give us a puppy, what hit me was, how many times are you going to get an opportunity to really change somebody's life? More people need to do this; this is really important," he said, more than once.
The Moruccis started their dog-raising career early on, when the first house they bought came with a dog the seller insisted they take.
"We were 18 and 21 (years old) and what we didn't know was that the dog was pregnant," Jerry laughs. "She had six puppies and that pretty much started our family."
It took far more effort to land Janet, the puppy the Moruccis received in 2011.
"We met once a week for six months before getting a dog," Marcia explains. "The Contra Costa County Puppy Raising Club trains you to learn the program and handle the puppies."
"They want to make sure you're really invested in these dogs," Jerry adds. "GDB brings in dogs from all over the world to produce this particular soft-breed type of dog. They're smart, gentle, obedient, cuddly and they don't want to be alone. They want to be with people all the time."
Raising a guide dog is unusual in a few key aspects. Because the dogs will need to support a visually impaired owner, they are never fed table scraps, are always on a leash when outside, are taken into public spaces like BART and restaurants and they must be trained to eliminate in a specific location ("It's a six-foot circle; you can't just have them relieving anywhere," Marcia says).
Although their diet is tightly-controlled to keep their body composition steady, there is one unrestricted form of nourishment -- praise.
"There's no negative in the training," Marcia says. "We give them their kibble, away from regular meals, and positive reinforcement as treats. It makes them completely happy, because that's all they know."
Jerry says a mild, firm jerk on the leash is all it takes to stop uncontrolled digging or barking.
Attending weekly meetings while raising their puppy gave the Moruccis a solid support team. During vacations, they were able to leave the dog in the care of other members of the group. But nothing could prepare them for the day they had to say goodbye to Janet.
"It was tough," Jerry admits. "You're still attached to the dog."
To ease their anxiety, they learned about the man who would get their pup, David Helkenn: his lifestyle, history, and beliefs.
"We raised this dog Catholic and David's a Presbyterian, so we weren't sure if it would work," Jerry jokes.
At graduation, Marcia completed half of her speech before breaking down. Jerry told the crowd he'd never had an opportunity to make a complete stranger's life better. Since then, they've exchanged letters and emails with David.
"He's a trained engineer, develops websites, he's involved with his church and takes the dog on public transportation ... " Jerry says, pausing as Bebe bounds into the room. Yes, despite the heart-wrenching moment they know will come on the day of graduation, the Moruccis have a new puppy.
"It's a win-win situation," Jerry says, shrugging his shoulders and stroking Bebe's side.
Guide Dogs for the Blind -- www.guidedogs.com.
Contra Costa County Puppy Raising Club -- sites.google.com/site/cccpuppyraising