Training the Trainer – Guiding Eyes for the Blind
I think I have wanted a dog as long as I can remember. I wanted one as a child but my parents said no because it would be too much of a burden to care for a dog and kennel a dog when we traveled. I couldn’t get a dog when I lived on my own during my single apartment dwelling life, but I would borrow my landlord’s dog to get my doggie fix. Then, I vowed I would get a dog once I had a house. Then, we had kids, and that put having a dog way low down on our priority list.
My kids are getting bigger. The desire for dog ownership has transcended into the next generation. My children ask us for a dog almost on a daily basis. The answer is usually “no” and sometimes “maybe someday.”
One day, my youngest son bounded off the schoolbus and said: “Guess What?!”
I replied with great interest: “What!!”
My son’s reply: “Can we get a dog?” Poor thing, he was only answered by my sigh of refusal.
My oldest son Nathan will become a Bar Mitzvah in November. In addition to the studying and the party planning comes the obligatory fulfillment of a mitzvah project, one thing to do to make this world a better place. Nathan’s proposed mitzvah project: to raise a Guiding Eyes dog for the Blind.
Now — now we’re onto something.
I know. I know if we do decide to train a guiding eye dog, it will not be the way you train an ordinary mutt. It will need to be more than obedient. It will not even be our pet forever. But truly, what a mitzvah it will be to train one of these beautiful creatures that may one day be a companion for the blind.
“These dogs are not your typical dog pets,” I explain to Nathan, not to discourage him but to make him understand these are not dogs put on Earth for our amusement or enjoyment. They have a job. And it would be our job not to just love and cuddle it but to train it for its intended job.
And he knows. For the last two weeks, puppyless though we are, my son and I have tagged along to GEB puppy kindergarten classes to see how the training is done. As I watch the volunteer trainers patiently and lovingly working with their dogs, I am not only humbled at the dedication these volunteers show to their temporary canine companions, but the fact that they have taken Nathan under their wing to train him how to train a guiding eye dog. If we do one day adopt a dog, I will be in their debt.
The Monroe County region of GEB has approximately 25 puppy raisers. Each year along the Eastern seaboard, Guiding Eyes pairs and trains 170 teams of dogs with blind handlers who receive these dogs at no expense. Puppy trainers are at the heart of this process that in the end enables the blind to live more independent lives.
Being a volunteer puppy raiser is no small commitment. There is a rigorous application process. A regional coordinator visits a potential volunteer to make sure their home is suitable for puppies, and then visits every three months to check the progress of training.
Nathan and I went to two classes: the first was in the community room of a church in Henrietta. The second, on the University of Rochester campus during the carillon bells concert held every Monday evening in the summer.
We’ve learned few things so far:
- Guiding eye dogs cannot be distracted: by other dogs, by blowing leaves. They must have their attention at all times on their master. And puppies, like children, are easily distracted. Nathan spent one solid hour working with a puppy named Ben to keep his focus.
- Once a dog regains its focus on the master, praise it like crazy. Puppies, like children, love positive praise.
- Nathan learned the difference of luring a dog – using a treat to get them into a position like “down” or “sit” and rewarding it – giving the dog the treat only after it has performed the command with no handling.
- The dogs must restrain their urges to play with other dogs and people.
- The potential puppy trainer – and the potential puppy trainer’s mother – must restrain with all their might their urges to squeal “PUPPIEEEEEEEESSS!!!!” and play and joust with every yellow lab in the class.
Classes are held in parks, busses, shopping malls, and even classrooms. The goal is to get these puppies accustomed to as many different situations as possible.
It takes immense dedication, love and patience to train a guide dog. The process begins at birth and they receive constant human contact from volunteers at the Guiding Eyes Canine Development Center in Patterson, NY. At nine weeks of age, the best pups already know the commands for “sit,” “stay,” and “down.” Over the next year, the dogs learn commands such as “come close” – necessary for riding a bus or eating in a restaurant, “load up” – get in the car, and “get busy.”
Yes– if well-trained, these dogs will even do their business on command.
If this blog post has tugged at your puppy-loving heartstrings and you would like to learn more about volunteering, contact www.guiding-eyes-monroe.org