Guiding Eyes for the Blind

As some of you may have seen, my Fur Face Friday posts are mostly of dogs I have raised/am raising to be guide dogs for the blind. Some people have expressed interest in learning what exactly goes into it, so I thought I’d do a post.

When I was in 8th grade, my mom and I submitted an application to raise a Seeing Eye puppy. We first heard about them on Reading Rainbow (a favorite show in my family) and a special on Animal Planet that year convinced us to take the plunge. We love dogs and wanted a new volunteer experience, so we signed up. First, we met with the leader of our local club. Then we submitted an application listing family members, experience with dogs, if we had a preferred gender or breed (we said no German shepherds to tone down the allergy risk for my asthmatic brother and preferred a female to go with our female dog at the time). A few months later, we got the call! And into our life came Stormy, a female black lab/golden retriever mix.

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Buddy was the first Seeing Eye dog, brought to the US from Germany by a newly blinded Morris Frank in the 1920s. He partnered with Dorothy Eustis, who had trained Buddy in a program to help German veterans of World War I blinded during the war, and they founded The Seeing Eye. Today, we generally call all guide dogs for the blind Seeing Eye dogs, though there are different guide dog schools all over the world. It’s like how we put Band-Aids on or grab a Kleenex, no matter what brand of bandage or tissue we actually use. Only the dogs from Morristown, New Jersey are actually Seeing Eye dogs.

Morris Frank and Buddy

They breed their own dogs: German Shepherds, Golden retrievers, Labradors, and Golden-Labrador crosses. These breeds were chosen for their intelligence, loyalty, and size, among other factors. One last breed, poodles, are occasionally acquired from an approved breeder for those who are allergic to the long fur of the typical breeds. The breeding station has geneticists on staff who choose breeders for size (not too big, not too little), temperament, and health. The big dogs, as many of you know, have common health issues like hip dysplasia that they have virtually eliminated.

Each litter is given a letter and are named according to that. For example, Gaston might have siblings named George, Gaga, and Gennifer. The next day, the next litter might be Huey, Houston, and Hannah. Yes, there are even Q and X litters. And no, they don’t run out of names because they go to straight up weird names. I’ve also heard of Siri, Parfait, and Yoda. The Seeing Eye keeps the puppies in the breeding station for seven weeks, with an engagement center of different sights, sounds, textures to start their learning process. They post great pictures from here on their Facebook page; I highly recommend Liking their page for cute puppy pictures on your Newsfeed.

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The Seeing Eye’s beautiful campus

When the puppies are seven weeks old, they get placed with families who have applied to volunteer. Yes, we are 24-7 volunteers. These families join local clubs, often by county, in parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, and Delaware. The clubs meet monthly to go over training, to socialize the dogs, and to do public outreach. The Seeing Eye seriously discourages kenneling of their dogs, so clubs often find people within them to puppysit. This is best, since other raisers know the rules and training so the pups don’t get off track (no people food or lounging on the furniture).

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We joke that these dogs are the only dogs that come with a manual. When Stormy was delivered to my house, we got a collar, a leash, food, and a big old binder. Inside were instructions on how much and what to feed her, how to train her, what commands to use, and troubleshooting tips (i.e. chicken and rice for upset stomachs, Bitter Apple spray to combat chewing).

We have our dogs from seven weeks to 13-16 months old, so around a year. During this time, the Seeing Eye gives us a stipend for food and pays for all veterinary care. We cover the luxuries, like toys, beds, cute leashes. We generally have the girls through one heat, as the Seeing Eye waits until they have the dogs back to decide whether they will become breeders. (We discovered it’s cleanest to get a doggy diaper and line it with regular menstrual pads.)

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Our last task is public awareness. Lots of schools, libraries, and scout troops contact us and ask if we can talk about guide dogs to the kids. Often, this accompanies a donation drive the organization has carried out for the Seeing Eye. We learn to tailor our message for the ages, as we cover anywhere from first grade to middle school. With the littlest kids, we might say, “Do you know what it means to be blind? Close your eyes. Could you find your classroom from here?” We have a whole spiel prepared that I’ve given tons of times (which is where most of this essay comes from). Afterwards, we take questions and then let the kids pet the dogs (obviously their favorite part). Because kids are hilarious, we get the best questions. “What happens if the blind person is walking and there’s an alligator?” “Can dogs go into helicopters?” “How do you tell boy dogs from girl dogs?” (Uhh ask your parents).

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So what do we do as raisers? Our first tasks are housebreaking and teaching the dogs their names. “Stormy!” *she looks* “Good girl!!!” Next we teach them basic obedience: sit, down, come, rest. We take them for walks, with them leading on our left side, keeping constant pressure on the leash, as they will walk when working. We don’t do any of the guide training; that’s all up to the Seeing Eye’s own trainers. Another big responsibility: socialization and exposure. We go here, there, and everywhere with these dogs to get them into situations they might encounter as working dogs so they won’t be distracted at that point. We meet other dogs, kids, tall people, people with hats, people in costumes. On college campuses and in stadiums, we’ve met mascots. We go to fairs, stores, concerts (and hope the dogs don’t sing along). One time we took Stormy to see a community band and she barked the first time people clapped, startled. She got used to it after that. With my club, we go to the beach, we go on trains, we go to an airport, we go to baseball games. Of note with this: working guide dogs, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, are allowed to go anywhere. A service dog cannot be banned from anywhere, because that is discrimination against a disability. Since our dogs are in training, they are not covered by the law. If we want to go somewhere, we call and ask if it’s okay. If it’s not, we go somewhere else. Just the other day, my mom and I wanted dinner before our puppy meeting, so we called the local Panera and asked if we could eat on their patio with our current puppy. They said yes, so I fetched the food from inside, while my mom sat with the pup outside. We’re not allowed to bring the dogs into restaurants, since the Seeing Eye trainers prefer to have the first crack at that training. Let’s picture a working dog who thinks it’s cool to steal their blind person’s napkin. Or food.

Then one day, we get a call: it’s time for them to go. Two weeks later, someone from the Seeing Eye picks up the puppy. We give them some last hugs, my mom cries. The first question we get from people when we tell them what we do is “Is it hard?” Yes, yes it is. This has been our dog for a year, but we know the whole time that they’re destined to help someone gain or keep their freedom. Once, my sister was working at a restaurant and a customer had her Seeing Eye dog with her. My sister mentioned that we raised puppies and the woman hugged her and said, “You have no idea how much that means to us.” Yeah, it’s worth it.

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Back at the Seeing Eye, they go to a veterinary college for extensive medical testing. If there are no problems with their eyes, ears, hips, etc, they return to the Seeing Eye and get matched with a trainer. For four months, they learn how to guide the blind. One of the main concepts is “intelligent disobedience”. If their handler wants to cross a street, they say “Forward”. If there is danger there, like a car coming, the dog disobeys and stands still. In one story, someone wanted to get on an elevator. They heard the doors slide open and kept saying “Forward”, but the dog did nothing. They got really frustrated and kept trying to go, but their dog sat in front of them and would not move. Eventually, someone ran forward to say the doors opened, but the elevator car was not there. Their dog saved their life.

Another concept for the dogs to learn is that they are no longer dog sized. They have to be as tall as their person and as wide as the two of them. While a dog can fit under a low lying branch or between two trash cans, their handler might not. In another story, a new dog walked the blind person into a branch. They struck it, “Ow”, but they were fine. The owner of the property the tree was on had seen this and cut down the branch, but the dog carefully walked around where the branch had been every time since.

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Through training, the raiser families get postcards from our pups. “My medical tests were all clear! I’ve been matched with my trainer Betsy and I’m learning a lot!” One we got from Stormy was “I’m afraid I’ve been chasing birds, but we’re working on it.” When training is done, they go for one final test: their town walk. The trainer walks them through downtown Morristown and the family is allowed to follow and watch. We stay several blocks behind to not distract them. But when we went to watch Stormy, she’d stop at the street, look left, look right, and then crane her head around to look back at us. Then she’d cross the street. It was amazing to watch. (Mom was crying again.)

About the Match

To receive a dog, you do not have to be fully blind. The legally blind and those with tunnel vision or any number of other sight impairments can get a Seeing Eye dog. The only stipulation is they need to know how to walk independently with the white cane. The cost to the blind person for a Seeing Eye dog? $150 for your first. $75 for subsequent dogs. $1 for veterans. The cost to raise a Seeing Eye dog? $60,000. That difference all comes from donations and bequeathals.

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Potential students apply for a dog and are assigned a class. They live on the Seeing Eye campus for three weeks and work with the trainers first. They conduct a Juno walk which I have to imagine looks silly- you know the leather harness guide dogs wear? Imagine someone walking with that…on the trainer. But that way, the trainer can learn the person’s gait and speed. They take that into account with where the person lives and what they do to choose the right dog for them. You don’t want a little old woman who lives in the city paired with a big strong shepherd who doesn’t like crowds. Instead, he’ll probably get someone young who lives in the country. She might get a sweet little Golden. For the remainder of the class, the dog moves into the dorm with their person and they begin the bonding and the training. Story time again: two roommates went out drinking after class one day, leaving their dogs in the room, and came home drunk. The next day, the trainers started laughing- still a little drunk, the two had managed to switch dogs and hadn’t noticed.

This match is the last we hear from our dogs. We get a postcard saying “Buffy has been matched with a woman who’s a seamstress in Florida. She has two cats and this is her fifth guide dog.” The blind person is welcome to contact us if they wish, but we have no way to contact them.

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The dog works with their person for about 7-8 years. In this time, they go everywhere with them. When a dog is in harness, it is time to work. They need to be focused on guiding their person. When the harness is off, however, they can be a regular dog, chasing toys and lolling around. I once saw this with the working dog of a local college student. The girl was holding a tiny puppy and her dog, sitting next to her in harness, paid it no attention. Later, she took the harness off and the dog immediately went up to us and our dogs, checking us all out and asking for belly rubs.

One question we get from people is “How do the dogs know where to go?” First off, if you tell your dog you want to go the Post Office, he’ll have no idea what you want. But the sight impaired are used to counting blocks and navigating to the places they often go to and the dog just goes with them. If they go to a place often enough, say the bank the person works at, the dog can quickly pick up the route and keep them on track if their partner gets distracted or misses a turn.

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They retire once they start slowing down or if any medical issues occur. When they retire, their person has the option of adopting them. One experienced student described adopting his previous dog and being matched with his next working dog. He had to have family distract the old dog by the front door, while he’d sneak out the back door with the new dog- the old one still wanted to work.

Career change

Not every dog becomes a Seeing Eye dog. I believe 65% do, but what about the rest? They can be washed out for any reason during their medical testing or training. While Stormy, my first dog, was matched with a partner, Eny and Dessy were not and we adopted them. Eny acted unsure around strange men (which we have never in our life seen) and Dessy couldn’t make decisions. Imagine her looking to the blind person, asking when they should cross the street. She was the sweetest thing, but I affectionately called her my dumb blonde for a reason. Dogs like these are first offered back to the family that raised them. So both times, we drove to the Seeing Eye, who had already spayed them, and they were signed over to us for free. Some people are offered their dogs back and say no. Some say no until they are offered one special one back. Most people, whether they accept or not, keep on raising. We didn’t raise for a while after adopting our second, but after losing Dessy last year, we put in an application this spring (when better weather came around for housebreaking) and are on our next dog.

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If the raiser says no, the Seeing Eye has a big list of people who want them, due to their breeding for good health, intelligence, and temperament. Many organizations request dogs of the Seeing Eye’s training to be therapy dogs, arson dogs, drug or bomb sniffing dogs, and police dogs. We call them “re-careered”. Regular people request the dogs too; there’s about a three year waiting list, last I heard. There’s also a waiting list for the dogs retired from service. Trust me, none of these dogs go unloved.

So hey, want to raise a dog? If you live in NJ, NY, DE, or PA, check if the Seeing Eye takes raisers from your area. Contact your local club (found on the website), attend a few meetings. At our meetings, we encourage new people to try handling different dogs. Apply to the Seeing Eye. Some clubs are allied with 4-H, so you sign up with them too. You can have other pets, some raisers have full menageries in their homes. The primary raiser has to be at least 9, but parents can be the main raiser with young kids helping out. If a child has raised two dogs by their senior year, they can apply for a scholarship for college. If you can’t raise, you can always follow the Seeing Eye on Facebook (October is a great month, every day for Blindness Awareness Month they feature a story of a guide partnership) or make donations, including through Amazon Smile.

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If you have any questions, leave them in the comments and I’ll do my best!

Final notes: I do not work officially for the Seeing Eye and most of what I’ve written here is from my own experiences or secondhand stories. And I would remind you that if you ever see a Seeing Eye or other guide dog in harness, DO NOT PET THEM. Do not even ask. You would be distracting them and putting their partner at risk.

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