For International Guide Dog Day, we wanted to share some insight on one of the guide dog programs, The Seeing Eye! We are very lucky to have one of our very own team members, Dr. Henry, who helps to raise puppies for The Seeing Eye! Below is a Q and A interview that we had with Dr. Henry. We also asked clients what questions they may have about the program! We appreciate the work that The Seeing Eye does to provide incredible guide dogs to the blind community.
Q: Tell me a little about the role you play in The Seeing Eye program?
A: We get the puppies when they are 7 weeks old and we have them until they are about 14-16 months but it’s been longer with covid. Our main job is to provide a home for them while they are young before they are trained and to get them really well socialized so they are not afraid of anything and teach them some basic manners.
Q: How did you get started helping the Seeing Eye program?
A: I originally thought about it as a way to get a good quality lab… if it did not pass the program. Then, when I got married and had kids they wanted a puppy and I said that the only way we were doing that was if we got a seeing eye puppy… and of course the kids were like “NO! We don’t want to give it back!” Finally, one year we had the conversation and they said OK! I looked into it. My kids were in middle school and now it’s mainly me and my twin daughters that are 18!
Q: How many seeing eye dogs have you helped to raise?
A: We are on 4th! Our first two passed and are matched with blind people and are currently working. Our third one just passed the program and is waiting to be matched with a blind person and we currently have the fourth at home.
Q: What is the most enjoyable part of helping to raise Seeing Eye puppies?
A: Always having a puppy at home and being able to take them places you can’t take your own dogs. We go mini golfing, movies, baseball games, malls, Home Depot and Longwood Gardens. We went down to the cherry blossom festival in Washington D.C. It’s fun being able to take them places where you wouldn’t normally be able to take dogs! ‘
Q: What is the most challenging part of helping to raise seeing eye puppies?
A: The fact that they are puppies – every year we are housebreaking and being up late or early can be tiring but it is very rewarding. Waiting for a puppy after your application is complete can also be hard. Obviously, it is very hard giving the puppy back at the end. That is definitely the hardest part.
Q: What would you recommend to anyone who is interested in helping to raise seeing eye puppies?
A: You can go online to find your local Seeing Eye chapter, there may no longer be a chapter in Delaware county but there is one in Chester and Montgomery, I am out of Chester County chapter. Once you find your chapter you basically go to a meeting and there you will get the application paperwork that you will fill out and return to the next meeting. Usually it is on average a 6-8 month wait for your first puppy. That may be different with Covid, I’m not sure where their waiting list is at this time. Then there are meetings once or twice a month and you should go to as many outings as you can for socialization. Day to day take that puppy anywhere you can, other than food stores or in restaurants, but take them to the mall or Target or wherever your daily activities are taking you. Questions clients asked
Q: Are there certain breeds that are more suited for the job than others?
A: Yes – all 4 of my dogs have been lab golden mixes, that is the biggest number that they raise. They also have a fair number of purebred labs, a few golden retrievers and some German shepherds. If there is a blind person that is allergic they will train standard poodles but they don’t breed them, they get them from somewhere else but all the other dogs they breed themselves.
Q: Are they bred and tested for genetic issues?
A: They breed all of their own dogs, so they are very thoroughly tested before they are bred. When the puppy goes back they let them settle in at first, then they go through a month of non invasive medical testing with bloodwork, hip rads, etc. If they are not going to use them for breeding they are neutered or spayed. They do tons of genetic screening to make sure they are breeding the healthiest possible puppies with good temperaments for this process.
Q: Is your help volunteer work or are you paid?
A: It is all volunteer work. They send a monthly check for food and pay for all veterinary care. Toys and any additional expenses are covered by the puppy raisers. If you take them on an outing, sometimes they pay for one of the raisers. Like if we go bowling they will pay for one person to go bowling. When we went to Washington D.C the puppy raiser was completely paid for as far as the bus ride and everything else
Q: Does the dog live with you or at the facility for training?
A: The dog lives with us from the time they are 7weeks until 14-16 months. Then once they go back to Seeing Eye they get matched up with a trainer. The standard training is 4 months. If at the end of the 4 months they pass they have a “Town Walk” which is like their graduation. We can go and watch them strut their stuff. We can’t go up and say hi to the dog, we have to watch from a distance. They show some of the things they have learned such as not crossing the road when a car is coming. They tell the dog to go but they need the dog to think for themselves that if there is a danger they should ignore the command. We get to see them not cross the road when a car is coming. That was probably the part that made it feel better after giving the puppy back because naturally you think “ Oh, poor puppy was living in a house with a family and now is in a kennel and working” but when we went back and watched our first one, she obviously adored her trainer, was wagging her tail the whole time… like absolutely loved what she was doing and that made me feel much better about the whole process.
Q: How does training them differ from a “civilian” dog or puppy?
A: A lot of the basic things are the same as far as having good manners from day one, not jumping on people or being mouthy. Probably the things that differ are that it is really important that they walk out in front on the left side, gently pulling on the leash because they have to be guiding the blind person. One of the worst things you can do is teach the puppy how to heal because that is a very hard habit to break. So if they get the puppy back at seeing eye and they are not walking out in front they are probably going to fail. It is also really hard to fix if they stop whenever they want to go to the bathroom. So it is really important that they are comfortable going on all different surfaces. At home I make my puppy pee and poop on the driveway, he would prefer to go in the grass but if he gets matched with someone in the city where there is not much grass he has to “go” on command. So they would tell them to “go” and then put on their harness and go out and work. If they are in harness, walking down a block they can’t just stop and go to the bathroom. That is a really hard habit to break, so making sure they go on command before we set out on an adventure is really important. They are also not allowed on furniture, need to be on the floor when in the car so they are not up on seats for public transportation and not allowed to have people food. Also some basics like sit, down, rest (is what they call stay) so the rest of the commands are pretty similar. They can fix just about anything, like if they have bad manners is an easy fix for them but not if they aren’t walking properly or going to the bathroom on route.
Q: Do you do general training and then specialized training depending on specific needs of the person who will be paired with the dog?
A: At seeing eye they do 4 months of specific training that would be necessary for the blind person but they do really work hard to make sure it’s a really good match. They won’t match a big strong dog with a person that could not handle them or a very sedentary dog with someone who wants to walk for miles on end. They look at the application of the blind person and get and idea of what their life is going to be like then pick out 3-4 dogs they feel would be a good match for the person. Then the blind person comes to a dormitory for several weeks to be trained with the dog. At that time they get to meet them and see what kind of pull they like and things like that and then they pick the best fit. They make really sure that they are setting them up for success. The other dogs will stay with them for additional training until they get the right match.
Q: Did you know you’re amazing?
A: You know people say that all the time because a lot of people can’t even bear the thought of giving the dog back. But I will say it is not as hard as I thought it would be because if I had to foster a dog and I had the option of keeping them it would be way harder on me. But I know from day one that this is not my dog and I’m going to get a text or an email one day that says “we are coming next Thursday to pick up the dog” and there is nothing I can do about that so I’m sad but I am not deciding whether to keep the dog or give it back. Not having to decide makes it a lot easier for me. It is a fun process I have thoroughly enjoyed doing this with my daughters, it’s something we do together, we go to meetings and I have met a lot of super nice people in this organization.
Q: How do I learn?
A: The seeing eye website has a ton of information on the website. There are other service dog organizations, Seeing Eye just does dogs for blind people. Canine Partners for Life is another organization that does pretty much everything but blind people like mobility dogs, emotional support dogs, seizure dogs that would be another good resource to learn about service dogs The Seeing Eye https://www.seeingeye.org/ Canine Partners for Life https://k94life.org/