Story and photos by Cindy Ruggieri
I met Klinger a few years ago while visiting the Granger Homestead in Canandaigua. I almost didn’t notice him, sitting so quietly. “What a great dog,” I exclaimed to his owner, “I think I could even pet him!” (That’s high praise from me – someone who is not necessarily comfortable around dogs.)
“This is part of Klinger’s training,” his owner Bonnie Kelly told me. “I’m a puppy raiser for Guiding Eyes.” My interest piqued, I started asking questions as she explained.
The Finger Lakes Region is home to dozens of volunteer puppy raisers, working under the guidance of Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, New York. The organization has provided guide dogs for the visually impaired since 1954, and is an accredited member of the International Guide Dog Federation, which establishes
worldwide standards for the breeding and training of guide dogs. Volunteer puppy raisers are the first step in this process – they provide the necessary foundation of early training and love that allows a puppy to grow to become an adult guide dog.
I recently chatted with Bonnie to catch up on the news about her puppies. Since we met, Klinger has become well known – he’s the first guide dog in the United States also trained to run marathons with his visually-impaired owner. Bonnie is now training Luna, Klinger’s daughter. “I started in 2005, and planned to raise just one puppy,” she said, with a smile in her voice. “So far I’ve raised 12.”
The puppy-training process
Guiding Eyes has an excellent breeding program, looking for very specific characteristics and temperaments that make the puppies ideal candidates to become guide dogs. At 8 weeks old, Guiding Eyes matches the puppy with a puppy raiser. Raisers can have any level of training and skill, from very experienced to first-timers, and can be any age, from student to senior citizen. Those interested in becoming a puppy raiser may first want to attend one of the training classes to observe the process.
I attended a training session with the Monroe County puppy raisers, taught by Pam Boy, Monroe County region coordinator, to see the puppies in action. They are typical puppies as they enter the room: wiggly, happy and interested in the other dogs. But the raisers quickly settle the dogs and the serious business of training begins. Both verbal commands and hand commands may be used. There is a focus on basic house manners, obedience and socialization.
It is very important to introduce the dogs to all social situations with people, traffic, crowds, indoors, outdoors – anything a visually-impaired person may encounter. Much of the training focuses on actions that are not obvious to a sighted person. The simple act of walking a dog – always on the left for a visually-impaired person – must be practiced until the dog avoids any distraction that may pull them away from the owner. A visually-impaired person is not able to make eye contact as sighted owners do naturally, so the dog must be trained to respond without eye contact. There is plenty of touching and massaging the dogs, as a visually-impaired person can only connect with the dog through touch and the dog must be comfortable with this.
Dog treats are used liberally for a job well done, but must eventually be phased out as responses become natural. Testing is done at certain phases of the training and must be completed successfully without the use of treats. Graduations to the next phase are cause for celebration.
Potential puppy raisers must attend pre-placement classes to understand what is involved in raising a puppy for Guiding Eyes, and to prepare for their puppy. They are then required to attend regularly scheduled classes with the puppy, generally once per week, for six months. Once puppies graduate from foundation training, regular sessions drop to twice per month until the puppy is ready to return to Guiding Eyes for formal guide dog training.
A network of puppy sitters is available in case a puppy raiser has to leave the dog for a short period of time, such as a vacation. The sitters are also trained puppy raisers, so they’re experienced in using the same techniques and commands, allowing for uninterrupted training.
I asked Michele, one of the experienced trainers at the session I attended, if it’s difficult to return the dog to Guiding Eyes after 18 months of training (and loving) the puppy. “It’s hard,” she admitted. “I have to think of it as if my child has graduated and is going off to college. If I didn’t look at it that way, I don’t think I could do it.”
Not every puppy makes it as a guide dog, but each remains a significant part of the guide dog program. For example, some may be placed in the breeding program. Others can end up in a different role, as I learned during my training class, when the group applauded upon learning one of their puppies was now an explosive detection canine in Tampa, Florida.
Occasionally, a puppy may be released from the program. At that point, the puppy raiser has the first option to adopt the dog, as happened to Michele. “They called me and asked if I wanted to adopt the puppy I had trained. I never hesitated – it was an immediate yes!”
Raisers in our region
Guiding Eyes organizes its puppy raisers by region along the East Coast, with a region coordinator as the first point of contact for potential puppy raisers. Local region chapters are established in Monroe, Cattaraugus and Wayne counties, the Finger Lakes and the Southern Tier. Classes are held at various public locations that allow the group to meet with the dogs, such as churches. The same training techniques are used in all regions, maintaining consistency for puppy raisers across the organization.
The Southern Tier chapter has a close affiliation with Cornell University, with college students involved as puppy raisers. The newest local region is in Wayne County and was added about a year ago. “Before we established this region, raisers had to travel an unreasonable distance to get to the weekly classes,” explained Cindy Swift, Wayne County region coordinator. “Having an additional region has made it easier for the raisers to attend the classes.”
It can be difficult work, she acknowledges, “but it is also very exciting to know you’ve done all you can to make the dog a successful guide dog, which can change someone’s life.”
This volunteer force of puppy raisers is dedicated and loving, devoting over a year to raising a dog that will make a difference in the life of a visually-impaired person. The Guiding Eyes slogan, “Raise a puppy, change a life,” is a perfect phrase for what they do.