The Seeing Eye gives Ocean Road students hands-on lesson about service dogs
Training a puppy to become a well-behaved family pet is a challenging yet rewarding experience. Experts estimate the average new pet owner will spend about a month working diligently and consistently - with continued reinforcement – to housebreak their puppy and to train him or her the very basics of obedience. Though every housebreaking accident and chewed up shoe is bound to bring frustration, pet owners are assured with the knowledge that – with consistency – the rigors of training will yield a lifetime companion and friend that is both respectful and well mannered.
Training a puppy to become a seeing eye dog is also challenging and rewarding, but in completely different ways. Companion dogs trained to guide the visually impaired – like those raised by Morristown’s The Seeing Eye - typically undergo between 11 and 14 months of training by specially trained foster families. These families nurture and care for the puppies, preparing them for further training and eventual placement with a blind person. Though the foster families do not keep the puppies they’ve raised, knowing the vital role the dogs will serve in a blind person’s life can make the experience even more rewarding than typical pet training.
The journey from puppy to Seeing Eye dog is a lengthy and rigorous one that begins when the Seeing Eye puppies are between seven and eight weeks old and are delivered to the homes of volunteer puppy raisers. Puppy raisers are foster families, who raise the puppies until they reach about 13- to 16-months of age, during which time they teach the puppies basic manners and commands, and socialize them to a variety of social situations and experiences that range from shopping and car rides, to visiting airports and boarding airplanes. They also socialize the puppies with people, especially children.
“Exposing the puppies to children is an important part of the socialization process,” said Christine Higham, who works in the Seeing Eye’s Puppy Placement department. “Being around groups of children is an excellent way for the puppies to practice their distraction training.”
It’s for this reason, according to Ms. Higham, that The Seeing Eye’s puppy raisers like to bring their charges to visit schools – especially elementary schools.
“Visiting younger students presents a valuable educational experience not only for our puppies, who learn important socialization skills like how to improve their focus and attention, but also for the students, who learn about our school as well as about the visually impaired and how to behave appropriately around service dogs,” she said.
Ms. Higham’s 11-month old yellow lab Bonnie was among five Seeing Eye puppies that - joined by their puppy raisers - took part in a recent training exercise at Ocean Road Elementary School. The training exercise, which doubled as an assembly for the school’s fourth and fifth grade students began with Ms. Higham encouraging the students to close their eyes and use their other senses to interpret what was happening around them.
“Blind people must use their senses of hearing, touch and smell to make sense of the world around them,” Ms. Higham told the students before asking them to recount their observations, all of which seemed to center on the click-clack sound of puppy toenails on the All Purpose Room’s tile floor, signifying that the puppies had arrived.
“Puppy raisers raise the Seeing Eye puppies as our own pets,” said Ms. Higham as German Shepherd puppies Cindy and Foster and Lab puppies Bonnie, Holliday and Harriett and their respective puppy raisers provided a brief demonstration of some simple commands. “We provide regular training like housebreaking and house manners but we also take them on trips and train rides to acclimate them to different activities.”
After about a year with their raisers the dogs are returned to The Seeing Eye, where they have a physical exam and undergo a month-long intensive training regimen administered by professional instructors. Dogs are then assessed for placement; those that are ready, graduate, and are placed with people from all around North America; dogs that do not graduate - what The Seeing Eye refers to as career change dogs – are often placed in alternate careers like law enforcement and search and rescue. The remaining dogs are offered first to their puppy raiser before being made available for public adoption. However, because the demand for these career change dogs far outweighs the supply, the organization must maintain a waitlist of prospective adopters, which ranges from one to four years!
“The Seeing Eye has very rigorous standards for our guide dogs,” Ms. Higham said. “Approximately 450 puppies – mainly German Shepherds, Labs, and Golden Retrievers - are bred each year; about 70 percent of those raised by the puppy raisers will ever make it to the next stage. Of those, 80 percent will eventually be placed with a blind person.”
According to Ms. Higham, placement is the goal of every puppy raiser, yet it’s also bittersweet.
“We raise these dogs as our own,” she said, explaining that and her family have raised 40 puppies for The Seeing Eye. “We love them and they are part of our family for the first year of their lives. It’s difficult when the time comes to return them to The Seeing Eye.”
Though once the puppies are returned, the volunteer puppy raisers are unlikely to meet them again, postcards help keep them apprised of the dog’s progress. The puppy raisers are invited back for graduation day to watch from afar as the puppies they’ve raised officially become Seeing Eye dogs.
Bonnie is the Higham family’s 40th puppy raised for The Seeing Eye, when asked if relinquishing the puppies gets easier with time and experience, Ms. Higham said, “It never gets easier but as painful as it is to give them up, it’s profoundly comforting to know that we’re helping someone live a better life,” she said.
Ms. Higham concluded the assembly with a word of thanks to the Ocean Road Elementary School PTO who made a donation to The Seeing Eye, she said, “The Seeing Eye is a non-profit philanthropic organization, which means we rely on donations to operate. We’re very grateful to your PTO for your support as well as to your principal, Mrs. Buck, for inviting us to visit you today.”
Principal Buck returned the thanks, saying, “The Seeing Eye is a wonderful organization full of very special people who raise and love dogs in hopes that they will make a difference in the lives of others. We thank Ms. Higham and her fellow puppy raisers, as well as the puppies, for showing us what it’s like to raise and train Seeing Eye dogs.
“The Seeing Eye volunteers are welcome to practice here at Ocean Road School whenever they’d like,” she said before inviting the students to step outside to meet and greet the puppies.
The Seeing Eye's mission is to enhance the independence, dignity and self-confidence of people who are blind, through the use of specially trained Seeing Eye® dogs.
In pursuit of this mission, The Seeing Eye breeds and raises puppies to become Seeing Eye dogs, trains Seeing Eye dogs to guide blind people, instructs blind people in the proper use, handling, and care of the dogs and conducts and supports research on canine health and development.
The Seeing Eye works locally with the Ocean County 4H Seeing Eye Club, “Puppy Power,” a group of volunteer puppy raisers. Prospective volunteers must be in grade four or higher and share the goal of raising the best possible Seeing Eye puppy. For further information on raising a puppy, visit The Seeing Eye website at www.seeingeye.org and contact the area coordinator.