LIMA — Have you ever felt your dog’s eyes following you, like they’re watching your every move? Wherever Megan Tracy walks, a pair of eyes belonging to an adoring, obedient Labrador Retriever puppy follow. But one day in the not too distant future, she will need to say good-bye to her newest friend, Zach. Those adoring eyes will hopefully be guiding a new master without the gift of sight.
More than almost any other animal on earth, dogs are in tune with humans. They sense our moods, follow our pointing gestures, and read us for information about what’s going to happen next. For 14 to 16 months, Zach will live with unpaid volunteers, learning to obey commands and remain focused on his task while tempted by distractions. Home socialization volunteers give Zach one-on-one attention while introducing him to new sights and sounds in a home environment. These new experiences boost Zach’s confidence and give him the greatest chance for success as he proceeds through the Guiding Eyes program.
The dogs go through training that could be classified as extended socialization. The puppy raisers take the dogs home and teach them how a guide dog is supposed to interact with the outside world. At this time, more commands are introduced, including: “stand”, “down”, “stay”, “touch”, “back”, “heel” and “close”. Dogs must also learn to keep calm, ignore distractions, and obey their masters in all situations.
During this time the dogs learn how to greet other people and how to interact with different social settings. The raisers are encouraged to take the dogs to as many different places as they can to introduce them to new experiences, as long as the dog is ready for them. Raisers must take care not to ask too much of the dog or go too fast with the training procedures.
To keep track of a dog’s progress as well as their training and their raisers, Guiding Eyes for the Blind has puppy classes for the raiser/dog pairs. At these classes, the training methods are enforced and the raiser and dog get to practice the commands in a controlled environment.
Guiding Eyes for the Blind also provides veterinary care for the dogs without cost to the raiser. Another set of volunteers that are involved in a dog’s life at this point and time are called “puppy sitters”. Puppy sitters are just like raisers in many ways. They go through the same training and oftentimes attend the puppy classes as well, but do not keep the dog with them for like raisers. Puppy sitters will often take puppies for a period of time and expose the puppy to their social group, which is often different from that of the puppy raiser. This way, the dogs get a wider variety of exposure to different things.
Zach is no ordinary yellow Lab. The nine-month-old Lab is the product of a 65-year lineage attempting to produce perfect guide dogs for people with vision loss. Tracy, a sophomore architecture major, was connected with the program at Miami University through a program called “Hawks for a Cause.” It exposes students to different non-profit organizations that help others.
Tracy said of her initial exposure to The Guiding Eyes for the Blind program, “Guiding Eyes for the Blind was there, which was the cause that I chose. It’s kind of small at Miami. I met a girl — Alex — there that fostered Zach. She introduced me to the program. Classes are in Columbus where we take the dog every week. There are four of us working with Zach. When a year and a half old, Zach will return to New York for guiding training. We just do socialization getting them used to new sounds and places.
“During the school year, I watch Zach whenever Alex needs someone to watch him. With Guiding Eyes, I am considered a sitter. I’ll watch Zach a couple of time a week for a couple of hours. Over the summer, it’s over a couple of days to a week.
“We can pretty much take them everywhere. Since they’re not official guide dogs we can’t take them in places where they say, ‘No.’ But most everyone is open to it because the dog has got to learn. We can take them anywhere that’s safe such as stores, farmer’s markets, any outdoor music. You kind of judge it – what it would be like with a nine-month-old puppy.”
The Canine Development Center located in Patterson, New York, is where guide dogs begin their careers and complete their guiding training. The first steps are taken to creating a successful guide dog team: breeding, birthing, socializing, screening, and placing high-potential puppies in puppy-raising homes. Each year there are approximately 500 puppies bred at Guiding Eyes and half will become working dogs. At roughly 8 weeks old they are dispersed among the organization’s 1,400 volunteers, according to Guiding Eyes documents. Each guide dog team costs between $50,000 and $100,000, and 170 guide dogs are placed each year.
Yet even with science working in their favor, only a little more than half of guide dogs make the cut. Others find jobs in drug enforcement or therapy, and some simply become pets.
Tracy is preparing for Zach’s return to Guiding Eyes. “It’s kind of sad, but I look at it like he’s going to help someone that needs him to guide them. It will be sad, but it’s worth it.”
If interested in volunteering, please go to Guiding Eyes for the Blind at guidingeyes.org.