Archives - February, 2015



28 Feb 15

By Denise Ezekiel

The puppies are eager to say hi!

The puppies are eager to say hi!

In November 2014 my husband Mike and I joined many friends at the Peak Potential Fundraising Dinner. We bid on, and won, an amazing trip to tour the Guiding Eyes facilities in New York!

We chose to go during our daughters’ school break. Part of our package included a dinner at a wonderful restaurant called the Moderne Barn, and an overnight stay at a local hotel. We began our tour at the Canine Development Center in Patterson, NY. A lovely woman named Vikki was our guide. We met a geneticist who taught us that the mommy and daddy dogs are paired up very carefully! Some of the labs and shepherds at Guiding Eyes are specifically breeding dogs. They live with loving families, and the female dogs go the Guiding Eyes only when in heat, or when ready to deliver. The dogs are tested for strength of vision, hearing, muscle tone, skin and fur, cardiac and pulmonary systems and longevity. “Samples” from the male dogs are even flown all over the world to other guide dog facilities to strengthen their population. Mother dogs can have 3-4 litters before they are retired as loving pets.

Jordan makes some new friends.

Jordan makes some new friends.

We got to see some very young pups – some born 12 hours prior! Pups stay with their moms while they are nursing – up to about 6 weeks. While the pups are very young, they are introduced to human interaction. Volunteers come in at all hours to massage them, cuddle them, talk to them.

As soon as the pups can see and walk they are put in play areas with the volunteers to start to get introduced to sights and sounds and textures and distractions. Little cloth ribbons are even placed around their abdomens to get them used to the feel of a harness!

At around 8 weeks the pups are weaned from their mothers and go into the puppy pre-school! The puppies are now in groups of 2-3 instead of their larger litters to get them used to more independence. Here they start to work with trainers again in big playpens filled with stairs, slides, tunnels, grates, noises, fans, etc. Also, soft cloth harnesses are put on dogs that will tolerate them. At feeding time dogs are asked to sit and be still and quiet before being fed. It’s amazing how quickly they respond!

Elizabeth plays with Flyer in "puppy pre-school."

Elizabeth plays with Flyer in “puppy pre-school.”

My daughters Jordan and Elizabeth got to go into the training ring with some adorable shepherds named Flyer and Franz to work on some skills. Dogs at this age are learning how to respond to their name, tackle obstacles, distractions, crawl into tight spaces, etc. It’s a big jungle gym but they don’t realize that it’s puppy school!

Pups who seem willing and able to learn are sent from the Patterson facility to live with loving puppy raising families for the next year or so of their lives. Volunteer families, mostly on the East Coast, live with and love on these dogs 24-7. Here the dogs learn their basic commands of sit, stay, etc. They also attend training classes in groups near their homes and start wearing vests and going into public places.

Once the dogs are about 18 months-2 years old they return to the Guiding Eyes Training Center in Yorktown Heights, NY. Loving raisers must say good-bye to their friends and wish them success in their future! Here is where the second part of our tour commenced. We were greeted by Michelle, who was an amazing hostess, and treated us to lunch in the facility. We were also introduced to Tom Panek, President of Guiding Eyes, and his guide, Gus.

The Ezekiel family poses with Wrangler, who is training with the Today Show staff.

The Ezekiel family poses with Wrangler, who is training with the Today Show staff.

At the end of our lunch we had a wonderful surprise, celebrity pup Wrangler was in the building! Wrangler is in puppy training with the Today Show staff and his handler, Saxson. He was adorable and posed with us!

After lunch we met senior trainer, Melinda, and dog in training, Janice. Melinda demonstrated to us Janice learning how to identify a chair. These dogs learn hundreds of words and commands in their training.

The next exciting part of our afternoon was actually being blindfolded and being guided by 2 other dogs in training, Jockey and Anniken. Both are soon to graduate. We walked outside on a path and it was frightening and exhilarating! The dogs will stop to notify you of any change – a curb, a crosswalk, the sound of a car. It was scary for us just being on a safe path, so to imagine the trust put into these dogs to navigate a subway or train or city street (or mountain!) is mind-boggling to me.

The Ezekiels were blindfolded and led around outside by Jockey and Anniken, two dogs in training.

The Ezekiels were blindfolded and led around outside by Jockey and Anniken, two dogs in training.

Guiding Eyes raises about 500 dogs per year, and approximately 150 are placed as Guides for the blind or visually impaired. The dogs who do not pass the strict exams (or as we were told, choose a different career!) are sometimes trained as police/military dogs, autism service dogs, breeding dogs, or adopted out to their puppy raisers or another loving family.

Approximately 10-12 dogs per month graduate from the stringent guide program and are matched to students like Randy. Students come to the Patterson facility and live in dorms with their new dogs for about 3 weeks while undergoing intensive training and getting to know each other. Sometimes, experienced handlers, like Randy, will have the dog delivered to their home for the intensive training. The lifestyle of the handler is matched very carefully to the temperament of the dog. Some dogs are better suited for the city than others, for example. Some, like Autumn, are little spitfires that like adventure! Handlers must be able to provide exercise daily for their dogs and of course veterinary care.

When all is said and done, it costs about $45,000 to raise one dog! Blind humans do not pay for their dogs – they are gifted by Guiding Eyes. All money that is used to support the raising and training of the guide dogs comes from fundraising and donations. Once dogs reach retirement, their handlers are given first choice of adoption, then their puppy raisers, or another family on a very long wait list.

All of the facilities at Guiding Eyes were impeccably clean and warm and filled with loving staff and volunteers from the birth to training to retirement of these dogs. It was an amazing, eye-opening life experience for our family. We appreciate what we have, and appreciate all that goes into training Guide Dogs so that others may have a more independent, fulfilling life.

Thanks to Randy, 2020 Vision Quest and to the staff at Guiding Eyes for all that you do!

Denise, Michael, Jordan, and Elizabeth Ezekiel

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21 Feb 15

By Randy Pierce

The recent tragic death of a young hiker in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains highlights the importance of risk management. In my presentations, I frequently attempt to address the notions of Risk vs. Reward as well as ways to evaluate and manipulate both risk and reward in our world. As a blind adventurer, these are important skills for me to develop. I often emphasize my desire to be a problem solver rather than a risk taker, despite my understanding that risk is rarely removed from even our most common activities–rather, we can try to minimize it to enhance the safety and enjoyment.

Randy presents to students at UNH.

Randy presents to students at UNH.

The concept of “Social Risk Management” is an all too rarely considered but highly powerful part of our every day interactions. Speaking at the University of New Hampshire course for Professor Brent Bell, I had the chance to explore this notion in a bit more depth. In most of our social interactions with strangers and even friends, there is an element of risk to our approach. Might we say the wrong thing and feel foolish, ignorant, or any of the many negative emotions which could arise from others’ response to our outreach? While there’s value to considering our approach to avoid unintended detriment, there is also value in finding the comfort to be ourselves and express ourselves. Understanding the many diverse social expectations takes time and exploration, especially early in relationships when those feelings of risk and caution are higher.

This caution is also a natural response for people who encounter something outside of their notions of typical. My blindness often falls into this “atypical” categorization, and as such silence is all too often people’s response as they worry how their words might offend me or even whether my blindness takes away too much of our commonality for easy communication. It’s amazing how quickly conversation eases this. Ultimately, we realize we are all people and that as humans we have vastly more in common than we have different. I find that the easiest approach is for me to reach out first because communication is an excellent way to help lower the feelings of risk and to develop comfort.

Our "potent" New England winter.

Our “potent” New England winter.

In this particularly potent winter, it’s a little amusing to realize that “ice breakers” are often what we need. My Dog Guide Autumn often serves as such an excellent ice breaker and conversation starter. “What a beautiful dog!” people will say. “What breed is she?” For others it may be as simple as an inquiry on the weather. It’s not that we are all infatuated with weather–it’s simply a low investment and low risk outreach. A gruff response can be interpreted as a person’s weariness of shoveling rather than feelings against us personally. Similarly a cheery response is the welcome sign which allows us to know we can stride forward with less risk to more meaningful conversations.

We undertake these social risks, of course, because for the “reward” part in the Risk vs. Reward equation. Growing or enhancing our community can expand so much of our potential that it is a very worthy reward and also a topic worthy of another more in-depth blog in the future. Of course, in simply writing this blog I’ve taken some social risks and your response to it will be a sign of the very reward I’m suggesting!

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14 Feb 15

By Randy Pierce

“People glorify all sorts of bravery except the bravery they might show on behalf of their nearest neighbors.”
– George Eliot

Ice and snow at the Pierce house after a recent storm.

Ice and snow at the Pierce house after a recent storm.

One of the most snow-laden winters on record is presently burying our little corner of the country. When there is this much snow, it becomes more challenging to clear driveways with banks over your heads. It also becomes more essential to clear roofs and do other work not common to the typical winter for us. People are tired and discouraged as more storms and more work continue to be a part of the routine.

Yet in the midst of this we find everyday heroes among us. For Tracy, Autumn, and me, this includes two separate but close families who live across the street. It is a rare snowstorm in which we don’t have one or both of them in our driveway with a snow blower–often without our knowing which one came to the rescue–simply because they are the helpful, caring, and kind people who so often find the motivation to do just a little more for others.

When I posted the above picture on my personal Facebook page recently, it was to capture the depth of snow and ice which was invading our home and to mark it before I began the process of clearing the ice and snow from the roofs – a project I would never finish as the neighbors descended in force and worked tirelessly with an invigorating good-humored laughter central to the work. I’ll spare their names for this public blog but suffice it to say they have earned our appreciation and tremendous thanks so many times over that the above quote fits so very well.

“Good fences make good neighbors.” – Robert Frost

While the New England poet’s words have garnered more fame than the heroic quote I opened the blog with, I think the fundamental part of New England community and strength is knowing when to come together in support. We may not raise a lot of barns together in this day and age, but our opportunities to positively influence those around us is simply tremendous. Learning to cross the lines all too often used to divide us is such a worthy approach. My friend Court Crandall took it a step further in his TEDx talk “Creating the Lines Which Unite Us”. I’m just thankful for the great people who choose to do heroic things great and small to show the positive power of community–people like our neighbors, and people like all of us if we so choose.

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7 Feb 15

By Randy Pierce

“Every mountain top is within reach if you just keep climbing.” – Barry Finlay

Group shot on Franconia Notch

Group shot on Franconia Notch.

Our rather epic adventure to summit the tallest standalone mountain in the world should become reality this year. We have assembled a team of 10 friends to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in September 2015. January 30 brought 8 of the team together for a practice hike in the frigid Franconia Notch.

Originally we hoped the steady steeps of Mt. Lafayette would be excellent work and the views a worthy celebration, but as temperatures began to drop and wind speeds began to rise we adjusted plans to avoid the 2 miles above tree line in dangerous conditions. Hiking just across the notch Lonesome Lake trail and the Kinsman Mountains allowed for more sheltered work which would still have team building challenge and experience. As we assembled by the trailhead, the lowest temperature noted dropped all the way to -8 along with winds to make it more challenging still. This was below the range of our comfort and we expected the hike might be curtailed yet chose to at least work towards the well traveled trail up to the frozen tarn.

Frost-covered Tracy looks at the camera and takes the lead.

Frost-covered Tracy takes the lead!

Tracy took the lead quickly so we could begin keeping warm with the exertions, but many snow drifts quickly had her stopping to don her snowshoes. The long legs of Rob and Randy stayed with micro-spikes to the start of the tree-sheltered incline which made the trail more packed from the frequent daily trips to the AMC hut. This also eased the worst of the wind chills and we all came together along the trail enjoying the beauty of the snowscape and mountain escape.

Autumn guided me with enthusiasm to be working and moving. Pups and people were fine in motion but every stop brought a uncomfortable chill for both Dina and Autumn, the two dogs on the trip. Worse, Dina’s furry paws kept binding snowballs and neither her boots nor the musher’s wax seemed to be helping her.

Rob and Randy cross the bridge.

Rob and Randy cross the bridge.

Thus just before reaching the lake, Michelle turned around and the group consensus suggested that Lonesome Lake would be our turn around point as well. Those few who braved the gusty Arctic chill of the winds on the lake did so mostly to appreciate temperatures well below what we are ever likely to experience during our African journey. We all then headed down with Autumn and me managing much of the down on our own, knowing we had Cat and Tracy ahead of us and the main crew of Rob, Greg, Frank, and Cathy not too far behind. It was a fun part of our trip to work the trail entirely on our own. Once caught up though Rob Webber took over guiding to help us make a faster return to the warmth below. While vastly shortened as a hike, it allowed us to explore the group dynamic for making decisions and supporting each other in fairly difficult conditions.

We spent the rest of the day together feasting, planning the final timing for our travel, Safari, and just having fun. Whether it was a teaser to some of the deeper questions and answers we may share on the trail or the laughter and competition of Catch Phrase, it was quickly apparent that the friendship held by some quickly led to a warm and welcoming friendship for all to share. It’s just over six months away, but it finally feels like the real beginning to our journey together has arrived. We’ve set the next date for a little hike and hang out work. I’m excited to bring the full team steadily together and make the dream a reality. Thank you to the entire Killy Team: Rob, Jose, Greg, Tracy, Michelle, Cathy, Frank, Maureen, and Cat!

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