Can You Help Train a Guide Dog?

We’ve all marveled at the training and abilities of the gentle helpers — guide dogs.

But volunteers are needed for Guiding Eyes for the Blind to fulfill its mission.

Margo Ratafia of Armonk (pictured above) saw puppy raising as a wonderful way to include her children in volunteering. Ratafia was seeking a volunteer activity in which her children, 10-year-old Abbey, and Josie, 8, could actively participate. “I was looking for an opportunity to do something for someone else that involved the family, not just mom,” Ratafia says.

A puppy raiser welcomes a 9-week-old puppy into the home and cares for the pup until he is about 20 months old and is ready to begin his formal guide dog training.

To become part of this program, the Ratafias attended pre-placement classes and did some puppy sitting for Guiding Eyes pups. This offered them a realistic view of puppy raising requirements. Then, the Ratafias welcomed a black Labrador retriever named Dudley into their home.

Abbey and Josie take their puppy raising responsibilities seriously. They helped to housebreak Dudley and teach him house manners. The pup needs to learn basic obedience commands, so the girls attend a twice-monthly obedience class with Dudley.

Abbey and Josie also make certain that Dudley stays safe and healthy. The girls feed him a diet of healthy dog food with no puppy treats or table food included. They also walk him daily. On these outings, Dudley is encouraged not to pull on the leash and to walk on the left and a few steps ahead of the handler, which lays the groundwork for his formal guide dog training. At night or whenever the family is not home, Dudley is kept securely in his crate.

One of the most important parts of the Ratafias’ job is to socialize Dudley, to gradually introduce him to various experiences and people. This prepares the puppy for the varied environments he will meet as a guide dog. At about six months of age, a Guiding Eyes puppy receives its puppy-in-pre-training jacket and is ready to visit public places. Abbey and Josie take Dudley to many of their activities. The dog visits the ball field and even attends Girl Scout meetings with them.

Not only are Abbey and Josie expanding Dudley’s worldview, but he is also giving them that same gift. Margo Ratafia reflects that her daughters have interacted with many visually impaired people they wouldn’t have met if it weren’t for Dudley.

In addition, Abbey and Josie have shared their knowledge about guide dogs with their peers. Both have presented projects about Guiding Eyes to their classes. They also helped their Girl Scout troops earn pet care badges and arranged for them to tour the Canine Development Center in Patterson. “Puppy raising has been a great source of pride and enjoyment for the girls, knowing what a difference they are making in another’s life,” says their mom.

When the time comes for the dog to attend formal guide dog training, the farewell is sad. However, puppy raisers are given a place of honor at the graduation ceremony of their puppy and his guide dog user. “It feels like a loss,” says Ratafia, ”but that feeling falls by the wayside when you meet the dog’s handler.”

The Ratafias understand this parting process because Dudley is the second puppy they have raised for Guiding Eyes. Their first, Gibson, is now a working guide dog for a young man in Oklahoma. With Gibson’s help, the man has recently traveled by plane to South Dakota. “The guide dog opens up his world and makes him independent,” explains Ratafia.

And this is the mission of Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Like many of the other centers worldwide, the one in Patterson breeds its own colony of dogs — mostly Labrador retrievers, but also golden retrievers and German shepherds. The center includes a hi-tech reproductive and cryogenics lab, which breeds the dogs for excellent health, and for personality traits such as intelligence and confidence, which are necessary for successful guide dogs.

Before puppy raising, foster volunteers house a breeding dog and are responsible for the health and safety of the animal. The volunteer must agree to walk the dog three miles daily and be available to bring the dog to the center at breeding time.

Then there are early socializer volunteers, who visit the center and massage and play with the puppies when they are between one and five weeks of age. The puppies have to adjust to frequent human touch because their guide dog users will handle them often to groom them and check for illnesses. The early socializer plays with the pups in a nursery school-like setting. There, the pups are exposed to different experiences, like tunnels, tipping saucers, and the feel of a variety of textures under their paws.

When the puppies are between the ages of 5 and 8 weeks, volunteers called home socializers take two or three puppies into their homes for a few days at a time. These are the puppies’ first experiences with separation from their mothers and with the sights and sounds of a home environment. All these stages lead up to puppy raising volunteering, as the Ratafias are experiencing.

“Volunteers are the heart and soul of Guiding Eyes,” says Vikki Iwanicki, program manager of the Canine Development Center. “Without their dedication, we would be unable to continue our mission of providing exceptional guide dogs to the visually impaired.”

And there are numerous ways to get your family involved. Jobs at the Guiding Eyes Headquarters and Training Facility in Yorktown Heights include data entry, filing, and preparing mass mailings. Many volunteers choose to reach out to the visually impaired students. Some drive the students to and from the grocery store. Others read the students their mail or help them to write a letter home “Coming in and playing a board game can so enhance the student experience,” says Becky Barnes, manager of consumer outreach and graduate support — and a guide dog user.

MARIE-THERESE MILLER is the author of five books about dogs: ‘Helping Dogs’, ‘Police Dogs’, ‘Search and Rescue Dogs’, ‘Hunting and Herding Dogs’, and ‘Distinguished Dogs’ (Chelsea House, 2007).

For more info:
—Guiding Eyes for the Blind Canine Development Center
361 Route 164, Patterson

—Guiding Eyes for the Blind Headquarters and Training Center
611 Granite Springs Rd., Yorktown Heights