By Denise Ezekiel
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.
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!
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.
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.
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