Raising Guide Dogs in the Finger Lakes for Guiding Eyes for the Blind

Berlin and Ursa out for a run.
by Nancy E. McCarthy

Dan Berlin, a successful businessman, philanthropist and endurance athlete, lives his life to the fullest with his wife, two children and two dogs. But Berlin’s quality of life skyrocketed when yellow Labrador Retriever Ursa joined their active family in March 2021. Ursa is his first guide dog. Berlin, 50, lost most of his sight by his late twenties from cone-rod dystrophy, a rare progressive disorder.

Established in 1954, Guiding Eyes for the Blind (GEB) is a New York-based nonprofit organization that provides guide dogs to people with vision loss at no cost so they can experience all of life’s adventures. For Berlin, a world traveler, marathon runner and hiker, adventure was already his forte. However, Berlin had to rely on human guides for his training runs at home. Now Ursa is his training partner. She matches Berlin’s pace and keeps him safe. Plus she’s ready to run whenever he is.

“Having Ursa gives me a sense of freedom,” says Berlin who describes her as “super sweet.” She seeks out his lap for cuddles or enjoys naps in the sun when she is off duty.

Dogs like Ursa are bred, raised, and trained by GEB staff and volunteers. At two months, puppies selected as potential guide dogs are placed in volunteer puppy raiser homes for basic training, to learn manners and build socialization skills. This prepares these dogs for a future assessment at 14 to 18 months to determine suitability for guide dog training. Even though Berlin lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, Ursa was raised by Shannon Doubet and her family in Cortland, New York.

Puppy Raising

GEB volunteer puppy raisers are located in thirteen states. In New York there are fourteen Puppy Raising Regions managed by four staff regional managers. Regional manager Cassie Houghton, also a two-time puppy raiser in Rochester, oversees the Finger Lakes Region which encompasses Chemung, Cortland, Schuyler, Tompkins and Broome counties. (Houghton also manages the Cattaraugus, Erie, Monroe and the Southern Tier Regions). The FL Region is her largest with volunteers raising 20 puppies on average in any given year.  Houghton’s duties include screening potential puppy raisers who fill out an application, observe puppy training classes and then attend an intensive orientation class.

Houghton also participates in matching puppies to raisers based on the lifestyle and handling style of the raiser and temperament of the puppy. Approved raisers are required to bring their young puppies to weekly obedience classes led by GEB volunteers in Ithaca. Thereafter, Houghton teaches the older dogs (six months and up) every two weeks.

Normally GEB pups are evaluated for guide dog training by 18 months. Some dogs are currently older because during the Covid lockdown training was temporarily suspended, creating a backlog. If deemed suitable for guide dog training, the dog leaves its puppy raiser to go on for senior training with Guide Dog Mobility Instructors on staff.

There is a national pool of applicants requesting guide dogs. Applicants and dogs are carefully matched, weighing the needs, environment and lifestyle of each individual and the traits and capabilities of each dog. For instance, Berlin requested a running dog and Ursa was trained to run alongside her handlers. Dogs not suited for guide work go on to alternative careers in the GEB Brood Stud breeding program, as detection or service dogs for other organizations or are adopted.

Houghton just finished raising Xena in the Monroe Region. Xena, a female German Shepherd, was recently evaluated for guide dog training and is being considered instead as a GEB brood dog. The decision will be made after a range of medical and behavioral assessments are completed. Broods and studs are crucial to producing well-bred, healthy puppies for future placements. Breeding dogs live with loving foster families until their puppy bearing years end and they retire.

The Doubets span three generations of puppy raisers starting with Shannon Doubet’s in-laws. Doubet and her husband are on their fifth puppy now and their two daughters are also puppy raisers. For Doubet, the biggest challenge is saying goodbye to these exceptional dogs after raising and loving them for many months. But, “knowing that they may help change someone’s life in a very positive way makes it all worthwhile,” she says.

The Great Blindini

Jenko, a black Lab, was Doubet’s third puppy. In June 2021, he became Chris Faircloth’s first guide dog. “Jenko has made my life so much better,” says Faircloth. “It’s all because of Shannon and her family. It’s not a small thing that they and other puppy raisers do. It’s huge and life-changing.”

Faircloth, who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with his family, was born legally blind. His optic nerve never fully developed. He is now completely blind in one eye and able to “count fingers” with his other but has issues managing steps and curbs, navigating curves, and is hyper-sensitive to extreme brightness and darkness.

“I was the fat blind kid who didn’t use a cane,” says Faircloth, 50, who resisted applying for a guide dog because he was concerned how others would react to it. “I had a pride issue but then finally realized that I really needed help.” Turns out, his friends and family fully supported his decision and wondered why he didn’t do it sooner!

When Faircloth was matched to Jenko, Faircloth travelled to the Guiding Eyes for the Blind training center in Yorktown Heights, New York, to train with Jenko for two weeks. This included a trip to navigate the busy streets of New York City. It was a little scary for Faircloth at first but the pair clicked.

When Jenko is on harness he is a serious working dog but off-harness a bit of a goofball, chasing after balls or jumping in the lake for a swim. He snuggles on the couch with Faircloth and his wife Geri along with their other dog and cat. However he always keeps a watchful eye on Faircloth. One day Geri was backing the car up and Jenko, off harness, started nudging Faircloth away and sidestepped between him and the car. Faircloth wasn’t in danger but Jenko wasn’t taking any chances.

Faircloth (a.k.a The Great Blindini) has been a performing magician as a sideline business since high school. He can make objects disappear and reappear, set cake batter on fire and produce a baked cake, bend quarters and more. Faircloth ignores the old adage “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Though Jenko, almost 3, is far from being an “old dog,” Faircloth is training Jenko to be his very first magic show assistant.

It’s a work in progress as they learn to perform tricks together. “Neither of us is perfect, but we are perfect for each other,” says Faircloth.

Learn more about Guiding Eyes for the Blind at guidingeyes.org.

Contact GEB Finger Lakes Regional Manager Cassie Houghton directly at choughton@guidingeyes.org. Follow Dan Berlin’s extreme adventures at teamseepossibilities.com. Find Chris Faircloth on Facebook on The Great Blindini page.

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