Volunteers at Guiding Eyes for the Blind make a pretty special concession when they sign up. They get a puppy to raise and help train, but then they have to give the dog to someone who needs it more.
Kate Travers doesn’t measure her time with her new lab puppy Diana in years, she measures it in shelves. Every time she has to puppy-proof another shelf, she tacks on a year to Diana’s age. Diana just turned “three shelves tall” this summer, but Travers won’t have her for very many more shelves.
As a volunteer for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a company that trains service dogs, Travers will raise Diana for about 18 months and then return her trained, socialized and ready to learn to be a guide dog. It is a massive undertaking, but if she’s diligent enough to train Diana sufficiently, she can continue to train puppies as long as she has the resolve to let them go.
Doggie Underground Railroad
Diana came to Travers via a kind of dog underground railroad. The potential service dogs are bred and attending finishing school in N.Y. but are raised all over the Mid-Atlantic region. Travers signed up to be a volunteer, was vetted, and put on a list of interested raisers in January.
Once the number of volunteers on the list reaches critical mass, it becomes feasible to transport the dogs to a region where they will begin training. For every region, there is a coordinator, also a volunteer raiser, who arranges the transport and establishes a training schedule. For the Delmarva region it that person is Ellen Higgins.
Higgins coordinates a caravan of people who meet centrally to distribute the dogs all over Delmarva. She also arranges with fraternal organizations and churches to hold training courses based on the class makeup. On Delmarva, the trainings take place in Milford or Easton.
Travers didn’t get Diana until May, but she spent the intervening months attending the dog trainings without a puppy of her own, just getting a feel for how the process would work.
“The first dog is always a little challenging,” Higgins said. “You’re learning at the same time the puppy is.”
Learning to train dogs isn’t too difficult, unless you count the physically and emotionally draining aspects. The rules are simple enough. Each week the group meets and practices the basics—sit, stay, come, heel.
They also get out with some regularity, bringing the dogs into public places to get them used to crowds, noise and petting requests. The dogs already have their red “service dog” vests and are welcomed most places. They are exceptionally well behaved from the first.
“Labs are easy to train because they are very food motivated,” said volunteer Becky Biggs.
Guiding Eyes for the Blind Training
Biggs is halfway through raising her first puppy, Kasha. Her decision to take on this responsibility came in the way it comes to many people. As an avid dog lover, she understood how vital a role dogs can play in the lives of the disabled, but a chance encounter gave her a particular insight. While at BWI Airport, she had the opportunity to interact with a guide dog for awhile.
That push got her talking about it and eventually she mentioned her interest to someone who told her about Guiding Eyes for the Blind.
Higgins has done it seven times. She has become attached to the dogs each time, but thinks of it in terms of sending them off to college. Once the dogs are fully trained, the raiser is invited to the graduation ceremony to see how their dog has fared during the additional two years of training. Moreover, it is not always a final goodbye. Raisers can elect to have their contact information shared with the person to whom the dog is given and many stay in touch and even bond over the dogs.
“When you’re raising the dog, you don’t know who that person is, the one you’re raising it for, but you do know you’re helping to change lives,” she said. “I’d have a new puppy every year, if I could.”
Higgins knows where all of her puppies have gone. Some she sees occasionally, some hardly ever, but she often receives updates. Knowing how much good the dogs are doing for people who would otherwise have a lot harder time, makes the long-distance relationships worth it.
A Special Relationship
The volunteers have a special perspective on their places in the world and in the dog’s lives. It’s a perspective Travers already has begun adopting.
“The joy that she gives me? I can only imagine how much joy she’s going to bring to someone who truly needs her,” she said.
Although Guiding Eyes for the Blind works hard to the right dog with the right person, there always are some dogs who are kept out of guide dog service. Those with an almost preternatural understanding of the work often are kept out of service to breed, thereby increasing the the likelihood Guiding Eyes’ dogs will continue to have excellent service dogs over time. Other dogs might be trained as companion dogs for autistic children.
Ellen Higgins, Region Coordinator for Guiding Eyes for the Blind’s Delmarva Region, explained that children who are given to bolting or just wandering off might often benefit from a dog trained to help the blind. The dogs can act independently, ignoring commands to, for example, cross a street when there are cars coming.
The dogs often help socialize the kids, helping comfort and calm them in times of anxiety as well as helping protect them from ill-advised impulses.
A version of this story originally appeared in The Metropolitan Magazine