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Guiding Eyes for the Blind’s puppy raising program involves volunteers training pups to become guide dogs who will make a difference in someone’s life.

Volunteers are vital in raising the puppies, brought into their homes at eight weeks of age, says Michelle Brier, Events and Marketing Manager for Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown, N.Y. “We believe early socialization is beneficial for our dogs to become guides,” adds Brier, recently interviewed by phone from her office.

Guiding Eye Dogs Include Labs, Shepherds, Goldens, and Golden-Lab Mixes

“We breed all our own,” she says of the organization’s breeding program developed over 35 years. Labrador Retrievers comprise 95 percent of the Guiding Eyes’ breeding population, with the remainder German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, and Golden-Lab mixes. Breeding essentials include good health, personality, and temperament for this program.

Before entering the puppy raising program, pups receive human contact through staff members and volunteers at the facility’s whelping kennel. They are massaged and taught activities such as sitting and lying down there.

Guiding Eyes for the Blind has branches in 38 regions from Maine to North Carolina and Ohio, where individuals can become puppy-raising volunteers.

Puppy Raisers

Anyone can qualify to raise a puppy, notes Brier, explaining volunteers come from all walks of life. Most important is that they are committed to the program. Puppies remain with the volunteers for approximately 16 months.

“It’s tough to say goodbye,” Brier admits. However, volunteers know the dogs are raised for a higher purpose, to make a difference in the life of a blind person.

Dogs Receive Positive Reinforcement

Among their early responsibilities, volunteers must let puppies out every four hours, attend weekly classes, and learn skills to teach the pups. Says Brier. “We use food and positive words to make sure the puppies understand learning is fun.”

Behavior taught the young dogs includes not jumping on furniture, housebreaking, following “sit,” “down,” “heel,” “stay,” and “come” commands. They also learn socialization skills, allowing them to be comfortable in various environments. For example, a puppy raiser in a small town may take the puppy to a crowded location such as a train station.

While the goal for each puppy is to become a seeing-eye dog, the dog can be dropped from the program at any time for various reasons, Brier explains. For example, although it may not be successful as a guide dog, it may be used in other areas. Examples: A police canine unit, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, or working with autistic children, providing them safety and companionship.

Children with autism are prone to running off, Brier adds. So with the help of a service dog, the child wears a belt attached to a harness on the dog. “The dog lays down and opposes the child’s attempts to flee. They change the behavior in a child, reduce stress in families, and have incredible results in making changes in people’s lives.”

Brier says service dogs can also help autistic children who have never slept through the night. The child will now rest with the dog, which alerts the parents if the child leaves the bed. Also, at the playground, the dog acts as a conduit between the autistic child and other kids. “Voiceless kids are learning to talk,” she adds.

Typically, those who will become guide dogs receive formal training with an instructor at age 2. They learn to wear a harness, how-to guide a blind person safely, and are then matched with a blind or visually impaired handler.

The blind person is taught how to live with a guide dog, residing at the Guiding Eyes facility for a month. “They learn basic health and grooming for their pets,” Brier explains. It’s important that they come home as a team. Part of it is connecting with the new puppy.”

Brier’s favorite success story regards Ricky Jones and their guide’s dog Pearson. From Nashville, Tenn., Jones used a cane much of his life. After an automobile accident, he was severely injured. Home from the hospital, he had a difficult time adjusting. Afraid to go outside with his three-year-old son, Jones felt unsafe on his own. Applying for a guide dog, he came to Guiding Eyes in New York, was teamed up with Pearson, and started getting back his confidence.

His training included crossing an eight-lane street in New York City, says Brier. Before returning to Nashville, his family drove him to the same intersection, and he repeated that street crossing with Pearson. “He sat on the bench, crying, understanding his progress. Then, finally, his little boy said, ‘You’re not afraid anymore, Daddy.’ You can imagine what his puppy raisers felt like, being able to contribute to that.”