Puppy Raising is HARD! It’s emotionally and physically hard. By the end of Jello’s training I will have had her for over a year. It is hard to always remind myself that even though she feels like my own, she isn’t, and that I have to return her for training one day. That is a constant emotional battle. On the physical side, it is important that I keep up with Jello’s exercise and training. Sometimes I get home from work exhausted and still take a special trip to the store just to work with her. She also has to learn to work in all conditions — rain, snow, and hot weather — meaning that I have to work in all conditions, too.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alona Fransen.
Alona Fransen is a seventeen-year-old puppy raiser for Southeastern Guide Dogs. She is currently raising Jello, a 14-month-old black goldador, who is working towards becoming a guide dog when she grows up. In addition to Jello, Alona has a pet dog, two pet snakes, and a Giant Asian Mantis. She has volunteered with a wildlife rehabilitation organization and operates a snake identification and relocation service. Alona is a part-time Veterinary Assistant, full-time college student, and an all-the-time puppy raiser. In the future, she hopes to help animals and their humans as an emergency veterinarian.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
I’m so happy to be a part of this! I’ve lived in Charlotte, North Carolina since I was five years old. I was homeschooled until I was eleven, and at that point I joined a small non-traditional school. As a kid I danced and wrote books. I am now in training to be a Junior Roller Derby Referee (AKA a Baby Zebra). I am a senior in high school, but in college courses full-time so that I can become a veterinarian as soon as possible!
You are currently leading working at an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
Southeastern Guide Dogs is an amazing organization that provides trained guide dogs and service dogs. A huge obstacle for blind and disabled people who need service dogs is that service dogs are so expensive. The cost of breeding, raising, and training a service dog can be tens of thousands of dollars. But because Southeastern Guide Dogs has volunteers who raise their puppies for free, and because we have amazing donors, we are able to place guide and service dogs free of charge to the recipient.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
My mother saw a program about raising guide puppies when she was a kid, and she mentioned it to me one day when we were driving to school. I was intrigued, so I Googled “guide dog puppy raising,” and found Southeastern Guide Dogs. When I was 16, I finally filled out the puppy raiser interest form. I was immediately invited to training meetings, where I got to meet future service dogs and even work with them myself. I loved working with the puppies and I just had a good feeling about it.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
I think my biggest “Aha Moment” was when I was puppy-sitting for another raiser. I took the puppy to the bank and somebody asked me about her. I explained to them that she was going to be a guide dog or service when she grew up, and I offered information about the organization. The person thanked me for what I was doing, and said that their nephew received an amazing guide dog from Southeastern Guide Dogs. That was the moment when I realized that raising a puppy would make such a huge change in someone else’s life, and that’s when I knew that I just had to do it myself.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
The biggest thing that I did to prepare for being a puppy raiser was attending meetings and puppy sitting for other raisers. This gave me the skills that I needed to train and live with a puppy that has such specific requirements. I had to learn what words to say and which behaviors to encourage. All of the other puppy raisers and other volunteers were amazing! They all let me work with their puppies, gave me pointers, and answered all of my questions.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading working with your company or organization?
Something very interesting about the puppy I’m raising is her name, Jello. Most of Southeastern Guide Dogs’ puppies are named by generous sponsors who help to cover the costs of raising the puppies. These sponsors are often individuals, but there are also a lot of companies that sponsor puppies and name them after their company or one of their products. When I received Jello, I was immediately suspicious. I did not find out the story of Jello’s name for almost two months after I got her, and by then I had practically made up my mind that she was sponsored by the Jello company. However, it turns out that she was named by an anonymous sponsor after a beloved great-grandmother’s signature dessert. As cool as it would have been to have a puppy sponsored by Jello, the real story of her name is very touching and meaningful.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
A behavior of Jello’s, that I have not yet been able to fully stop yet, is that she likes to pick up random objects and just hold them in her mouth. A funny instance of this is when she found a cherry tomato on the kitchen floor and brought it to me when I was doing homework. She sat in front of me for probably five minutes, wagging her tail, and I just pet her. I was distracted by homework so I just thought she wanted attention. When I finally looked at her, I noticed she had something in her mouth. I asked her to drop it. She did, and it was a fully intact cherry tomato! She hadn’t bitten it once, even though she had been holding it in her mouth for minutes. I thought it was so funny that she had the opportunity to eat food and instead just held it to show me! Of course, I then had to confiscate it and redirect her attention to her chew toy.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
All of the other Southeastern Guide Dogs volunteers who joined before me have been amazing! They have always been so helpful and answered my questions. However, I do have to acknowledge my sister Elisha. She is a couple of years younger than I am, and she has helped me to raise Jello. There have been a couple of trips that I have gone on where I could not take Jello, and Elisha did an amazing job working with her while I was gone every time. Thanks Elisha!
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
A Southeastern Guide Dogs recipient that has really stuck with me is the story of Bailey Locklear. She is a young woman about my age who is legally blind. She was inspired by Molly Burke, a blind YouTuber that I have personally been watching for years, to get a guide dog herself. She applied to Southeastern Guide Dogs for a guide dog, and she got a match! The icing on the cake is that her guide dog is a sweet girl named Mallee (pronounced Molly). What an amazing coincidence that the woman who inspired Bailey to pursue a guide dog shares the name of her own personal superhero!
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
The biggest issue that I run into when training in public is strangers distracting Jello. I can’t tell you how many times I have been standing in line or sitting at a restaurant and a random person just came up and pet Jello without asking. This is a big problem for me, because I have to teach Jello that when she is working, she can’t say hi to anyone else. Also, when someone is petting Jello, they are completely in my own personal space without having said a word to me. It is very uncomfortable, but this is an even bigger problem for fully-trained working service dogs. If Jello becomes a guide dog, she will be her handler’s eyes. If she is distracted, it can risk the life of her blind handler. If Jello becomes a service dog for a veteran, a big part of Jello’s job will be to keep distance between the public and her handler, as close contact and strangers can be a huge trigger for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The best thing for everyone to know is that if you see a service dog, please don’t interact! Do not stare at the dog, as this makes the handlers extremely uncomfortable. Do not try to talk to the dog, as this is distracting. And, please, do not pet the dog.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- You will be talking to complete strangers about your puppy every single day. I am definitely more comfortable talking to strangers now than I was eight months ago when I started with Jello. Almost everywhere we go, I answer questions about Jello, who she is, and what Southeastern Guide Dogs does.
- Strangers will try to pet Jello, and you have to have the confidence to say “no” to anyone asking to pet her.
Another thing that occurs almost any time I am training Jello in public is that someone will either pet Jello without speaking to me first or they will ask me. Those petting Jello without permission have always been adults, and I learned to say “I’m sorry, she’s working, you can’t pet her” and remove ourselves from the situation by walking away. That can be hard, and scary, but it is important. Usually, those asking are children. It is really hard to tell a little kid that they can’t pet the dog, but I have to remind myself that even though it feels mean, it’s the right thing to do.
- Puppy Raising is HARD! It’s emotionally and physically hard. By the end of Jello’s training I will have had her for over a year. It is hard to always remind myself that even though she feels like my own, she isn’t, and that I have to return her for training one day. That is a constant emotional battle. On the physical side, it is important that I keep up with Jello’s exercise and training. Sometimes I get home from work exhausted and still take a special trip to the store just to work with her. She also has to learn to work in all conditions — rain, snow, and hot weather — meaning that I have to work in all conditions, too.
- There will be so many situations where you feel like you have no idea how to handle them. I have texted and called my other puppy raisers for advice so many times, and that’s OK. At first, I didn’t want to seem like I didn’t know what I was doing. That was silly because I, like everyone else starting out, didn’t know what I was doing. I quickly learned that we all ask for advice about our puppies no matter how long we have been raising!
- Time flies. I can’t believe that it has been nine months since I picked Jello up. It feels like just yesterday she was a 25-pound puppy who could fit in my lap, but now she is a 55-pound dog!
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Making other people happy makes you happy! Raising Jello has given me something very tangible to be proud of. I see Jello improve in her training every day, and I know that she will make an amazing dog for someone one day. It is so rewarding to see what I have been able to do with my skills and I think that she will graduate from Southeastern Guide Dogs, but even if she decides she doesn’t want to be a working dog, she will make an incredible pet for someone.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris, hands down. I would love to have a conversation with her about service dogs.
How can our readers follow you online?
Jello is on Instagram @mellowjello.segd and I am on Instagram at @alonafransen. You can follow Jello for cute puppy pics, and me for some photography and more puppy pics. You can also follow Southeastern Guide Dogs on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and TikTok.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
It has been an honor! I so appreciate this opportunity to speak on something I am so passionate about.