When Bay State author and mother of two Sharron Kahn Luttrell lost her dog of almost 15 years, she found a way to help fill the void created by the loss: becoming a volunteer weekend puppy raiser for NEADS, a nonprofit organization that helps train assistance dogs for disabled children and adults.

The writer, who began her career as a newspaper reporter, captured her experience in her memoir, Weekends with Daisy. Since its release in the U.S. in 2013, Weekends with Daisy has become available in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Brazil, and is currently being translated into Japanese for its upcoming release in Japan.

Luttrell will read from Weekends with Daisy Monday, February 15 at the Solomon Pond Mall Book Blast. JCPenney Court, 601 Donald Lynch Blvd., Marlborough. The event runs from noon- 2 p.m.

When Tucker, the Luttrell family German shepherd, passed away, she began to suffer from a condition she calls “Canine Deficit Disorder.” After a chance encounter with a blue vest-wearing puppy and his weekend puppy raiser at a grocery store in 2008, Luttrell learned about NEADS (National Education for Assistance Dog Services) and found a way to help others while helping to heal the loss of her beloved family pet.  

“It was like a denial strategy: You get a puppy every year, it never gets sick or old, then the kids stay young forever, and everything is always happy,” she laughs. And in some ways, the experience is close to that: “It’s like having a kid, only way easier.”

Weekend puppy raisers are responsible for giving the dogs all the different kinds of exposure they’ll need once they go to their new home, which is reminiscent of chaperoning a field trip. “We’ve gone on trains, been to coffee shops, stores, museums (Luttrell’s current cultured pooch has been to both the Worcester Art Museum and the RISD Museum in Providence). We’ve even gone on Swan Boat rides,” she says.

During the week, the puppies are trained by inmates in correctional facilities throughout Massachusetts and Rhode Island, through the NEADS program called the Prison PUP Partnership. Though extensive training is received at the facilities, including the dogs learning skills such as turning on light switches, retrieving items, pushing buttons and the like, the puppies also need socialization training and exposure to outside world experiences. That’s where the weekend puppy raisers come in.

“The training starts slowly. Before we could go on a train, for example, we’d watch the trains from far away and then gradually move closer. By about the fourth visit, we’d walk on and off the train and then after that took a short ride to the next stop,” she says. Luttrell adds that the process encourages trainers to have new experiences as well: “It frees us to do things we wouldn’t do ordinarily.”

Daisy was Luttrell’s second puppy in training, but her first graduate.

“Some dogs flunk out and get adopted as regular pets,” she says, noting that Jones, her first puppy in training, was about 14 months old when he entered the program. “Daisy was 3 months when I got her and finished her training at 15 months.” Daisy has since been placed with a boy on the Autism spectrum.

The dogs, mostly Labradors and Lab mixes, come from shelters and reputable breeders who either donate puppies or allow NEADS to purchase them for assistance training.

NEADS also works with Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a New York facility that trains seeing eye dogs, she says. When dogs are determined to be better suited as general assistance dogs vs seeing eye dogs, they will come to NEADS for training and placement.

“There’s something called ‘intelligent obedience’ that determines where the dogs will fit best,” Luttrell explains. For example, a seeing eye dog needs to make decisions about safety, refusing to walk its human into traffic even if directed to do so, whereas a service dog doesn’t have to make such decisions and relies on its human for direction.”

Applicants for the assistance dogs go through a very extensive matching program, even moving to a facility on the NEADS campus in Princeton for two weeks to be trained with their new canine companion.

The matching process, therefore, is extremely successful, with only a very small number of matches not working out. “Kathy Foreman, who matches clients and dogs, has been with NEADS for 30 years,” Luttrell says of NEADS’ director of client relations and training. “Her method must be 70% science and 30% magic.”

Luttrell will be the featured reader at the Solomon Pond Mall’s President’s Day Book Blast event.

“I sometimes visit book groups who are reading Weekends with Daisy, and one book group member I met works at the Solomon Pond Mall and asked me to be a part of it,” she said. “This is the second year I’ve been involved in this event. I love reading aloud.”

Samurai, Luttrell’s 10th puppy in training and 5th graduate, will accompany her to the President’s Day reading. It will be their last scheduled outing together. Samurai has been matched and will return to the NEADS facility to get used to working in an office.

“He’s going to a work with a therapist,” she says, noting that just the presence of a dog can help patients open up and be more responsive during treatment. “After which time I will need to see a therapist (I know just the one),” she wrote on her Facebook page.
Other stories that will be read during the event include “Flakes and Flurries” by Josepha Sherman, the “How I Became a Pirate” series by Melinda Long, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle, read by staff from retailers Crazy 8 and Smilistic Dental, as well as educator Audra Guimond from Laurel Learning Services. All ages. More information can be found at The Solomon Mall Facebook event page.