The Seeing Eye, which is the oldest guide dog school in the world, breeds German shepherds, Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, and Labrador/golden crosses for the program. At birth puppies are placed in an environment designed for early social experiences. The puppies spend the first seven to eight weeks at the Seeing Eye before being placed with a “foster family.”
Kathy Daly, a Seeing Eye representative says foster families are volunteers who raise, care, and love puppies until they are about 18 months old and ready to return to the Seeing Eye for final training. Daly is the representative for two Seeing Eye puppy raising programs located in Delaware and nine located in New Jersey.
The Seeing Eye and the 4-H Youth Development Program have been successfully working together since 1942. The two have developed around 50 4-H Puppy Raising Programs throughout New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, and Maryland.
Puppy raising programs hold monthly meetings specifically to strengthen the puppies’ socialization skills with people and other animals and also to provide help and support for the families. The meetings consist of training circles, group discussions and questionnaires, and social time for both puppies and families. The meetings are where the group plans and organizes monthly “adventures” for the puppies. It is also a time when families help each other with puppy problems.
The volunteer families are an important part in the puppies’ lives; they provide shelter, food, love, and guidance for the first year and a half. During this time puppies are trained to be experts in basic obedience, including the commands “come,” “sit,” “rest,” “down,” and “forward,” Debbie Pierce, a retired puppy raiser, explains.
The families are encouraged to introduce puppies to different environments, sounds, animals, and people as often as possible. Each program organizes group field trips to ensure puppies’ exposure. Pierce, although retired, is still a member of Burlington County’s Caring Canines. “Throughout my involvement we have taken field trips to museums, bowling alleys, parades, ice hockey games, nursing homes, amusement parks, classrooms, and mall,” she says.
When puppies reach 18 months they are taken from their “foster families” and returned to the Seeing Eye where they begin their final training. Final training is a four month program with specially trained Seeing Eye employees. Final training includes everything needed for these dogs to become someone’s eyes. “Dogs are partnered with seeing trainers before they are matched with a blind person. They are trained to know left from right, walk on a harness, read traffic, and direct their human through their day,” Pierce says.
After four months of training the puppies become guide dogs. “It is called their graduation,” says Pierce. These dogs are not matched to just anyone, the Seeing Eye finds perfect matches between guide dog and human. Daly says matches are made based on handler/dog compatibility in strength, temperament, and home environment.
The Seeing Eye invites 24 students from all over the United States and Canada to their school once a month for a 20 to 27 day program. During the month program guide dog and handler become acquainted and master any needed techniques to ensure safety in their hometowns. When guide dog and human are perfectly matched the foster families receive a certificate for the graduation of their dog.
Families are told what state their dog was placed in and what occupation their new owner has, but are rarely given more information than that. The Seeing Eye does not allow families to know exactly where their puppies were placed to prevent families from attempting to find the dogs. A guide dog’s encounter with their first family can destroy their training.
The Seeing Eye makes it possible for people who do not have functioning eyes of their own to live a normal life and have an alternative set of eyes. These dogs become experts at guiding another; they live out the meaning of “man’s best friend.”