August 4-10 is International Assistance Dog Week, a celebration of those canine companions who, on a daily basis, lend a hand (paw?) to mitigate the various disabilities of their owners. These animal assistants provide a number of services, including aid to the deaf (hearing dogs or signal dogs) and compensating for mobility issues (service dogs).
Among the most well-known, however, are guide dogs who help an estimated 10,000 blind and visually impaired people across the U.S. The high-level training for guide dogs takes place through organizations such as The Seeing Eye, a Morristown, NJ, school that has been placing them since 1929. The Seeing Eye relies on a crew of volunteers to raise puppies from age eight weeks to 12-15 months, at which time they are returned for additional intensive instruction.
Barb Connor of Audubon, Pa., has been a puppy-raiser for The Seeing Eye for the past 20 years. She is in the midst of prepping her 20th dog, a German Shepherd named Kadence, for what she hopes is a long and successful career as a guide dog.
Once a litter is ready for placement, the 7-8-week-old bundles of fur are homed within approved households. "Our priorities when they come are housebreaking, obviously, but also things like name recognition," Connor says.
As they grow and their understanding develops, obedience commands are woven into the lesson plan. "The commands that we give them are a little bit different than those for a house pet," Connor explains. "We say ‘forward' when we want them to walk. And down is ‘down'; come is ‘come'; sit is ‘sit.' But the stay command is issued as ‘rest' because if a dog is lying for an extended period, such as in an office setting, he or she is allowed to move around, scratch an ear, and such, not hold a formal stay."
The other responsibility of a puppy raiser is socialization, the process of exposing a dog to as many people, environments, objects, situations and stimulus as possible, training for a calm and consistent reaction. "We take them everywhere they'll give us permission," Connor notes, underlining the importance of asking before bringing a dog-in-training. Because these animals do not yet have full guide dog status, a business or a site may decline entry. Most don't, though, because, as Connor describes, of the goodwill gesture.
"We go to absolutely everywhere you could think of: the malls, church, athletic events, my kids' school, bowling, the movies. I'm going to Lehigh Valley Airport to walk through, see the baggage claim, sit on an airplane if there's one available. Just anywhere you would go with your family," relates Connor. Next month, she and Kadence will be miniature golfing at Waltz.
When puppyhood is nearing its end, Connor hands off the dogs back to The Seeing Eye for the next steps. And it is at this juncture that puppy and puppy-raiser issue their farewells. Beyond this stage, unless the dog washes out for some reason, he or she never again sees the human who was so integral to those early months of life.
Not that there's much time to brood over the loss. Lessons and instruction comprise an intensive four-month regimen. In addition to a thorough medical exam, the dog's pull, a necessary skill to guide a blind person through foot or vehicular traffic, is assessed and taken into consideration during the matching process. The harness is introduced. And the dogs learn what Connor calls intelligent disobedience. "Seeing Eye dogs need to think on their own," she says, defining the term. "If an owner says ‘forward,' and it's not safe to go, the dog has to learn to disobey that command. In fact," she continues, "they're taught to get in front of the blind person so they can't go."
Distraction training is on a graduate-level, out of necessity. The training utilizes the streets of Morristown and, after they have been mastered, the caverns of New York City.
A dog who continues to do well is then ready for a Town Walk, at which time Connor is brought back for one last look at the work done. It is a one-way visit, though, with Connor watching her pup in action from a block away but the dog oblivious to her presence.
Graduation means placement with a blind person, which requires a month's training on the human side to learn the basics of command, care, feeding and bonding. Connor receives a "rather generic" letter, by her description, noting in overview fashion that her pup has been matched with a new owner. "I know I have a puppy in the Midwest that belongs to a mother of five children," Connor relates. "Her occupation is a school teacher for the deaf and blind. So that gives me enough information to know that my puppy is around children, goes to work every day in school, and sort of geographically where they are. We are totally discouraged from ever coming in contact with our puppies or anything like that. It's just for the privacy, it's really just for the privacy. And out of respect for the blind person."
Not all dogs are okayed for service, despite the best efforts of the puppy raisers. Dogs can be rejected for an inability to maintain focus, Connor says, or even physical oddities. "It could be that their tail is crooked," she points out. "Because you don't want a blind person for 10 years answering, ‘What happened to your dog's tail?' It sounds silly, but when you think about it, it's not what the businessperson wants to be answering everywhere they go."
Dogs that are rejected as guide dogs are first offered to their puppy raisers. If the puppy raisers aren't interested or able to take the dog, the animals are offered to law enforcement agencies. The remaining dogs are wait-listed for other adopters. There is currently a two-year waiting list for adopters wanting guide-dog turndowns, popular for their high intelligence and detailed socialization.
Connor knows the full circle of prepping animals for The Seeing Eye program.
Among the two full-time pets who live with her permanently is Winston, a three-year-old Black Labrador Retriever. He may have been deemed unfit for placement with a blind person, but it doesn't mean he's spending his time snoring on the Connors' kitchen rug. His sweet nature and socialness make him a perfect therapy dog, suitable for visits at hospitals, nursing homes and schools.
"He was raised to have a job," Connor laughs. "When he sees the puppy go out, he wants to go out, too. So we found Winston a job."
The puppies heading toward The Seeing Eye are often raised by children participating in 4-H (puppy raisers must be at least nine years old). A meet-and-greet of these special assistance dogs is part of the 4-H Fair August 8-10 in Creamery, Pa.