RAISING GUIDE DOGS
We are volunteer puppy raisers for The Seeing Eye, the nation's oldest and largest provider of guide dogs. This article should not be considered
an expert viewpoint, but it just reflects the perspective of puppy raisers.
2017 was the 75th Anniversary of The Seeing Eye’s Puppy Raising Program! The Seeing Eye started its own breeding program when the supply from local breeders could not keep
with the demand for dogs in training. It was around the same time that The Seeing Eye joined forces with New Jersey Extension Service’s 4-H program, and the Seeing Eye/4-H puppy
raising program was born!
In February of 1942, six German shepherd puppies went to live in the homes of six specially selected 4-H’ers in Morris County and about 35 puppies were placed that first year.
Today, six area coordinators work in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Warwick, NY and Maryland guiding approximately 550 families raising puppies. Until 1974, puppy raisers
were strictly 4-H youth, but today, we have adults, retirees and college students raising puppies in many clubs, not all of which are connected to the 4-H. Over 13,000 puppies
have been raised by volunteer puppy raisers!
The Seeing Eye has its own breeding station, selecting breeders according to learning capability as well as their physical condition. The puppies of each litter
are named according to letters of the alphabet, beginning with the letter "A" for the first litter of the year. One can imagine that it is not always easy to find
appropriate names for puppies that begin with "Q" or "X", but even in litters that begin with more common letters, the TSE comes up with some unusual names.
FROM WOLVES TO GUIDE DOGS
Although people have other house pets, only one is commonly domesticated. Some might argue that cats are in the same category, but cats are
never domesticated! Dogs belong to the family, but the family and everything else belongs to the cat!
Dogs descended from wolves, which do not make good pets. We hear the term, "lone wolf," but that is a rarity. Even in zoos, wolves are seldom kept alone. Wolves are
inherently pack animals. If you separate a pack animal from its pack, a personality change begins to take place. In extreme cases, an isolated pack animal will
refuse to eat, get sick or even die. Dogs have adapted to humans over time but they are still pack animals by nature. That is why a dog gets excited when it sees
Dogs are very teachable, sociable and cooperative because of their need to belong. If dogs are neglected or mistreated, however, they can become vicious. In cities
of some third world nations, roaming packs of wild dogs have become a serious problem.
A wolf pack is composed of an "alpha pair" and its offspring, consisting of anywhere from 6 to 15 wolves. The alpha male is the pack leader but there are also "beta
wolves" which aid the leader in organizing and commanding the pack. If the alpha wolf weakens, is injured or dies, a beta wolf will assume the position of alpha wolf.
A hierarchy also develops within the pack. The struggle for superiority begins in a litter as pups contend with one another in play. Wolves may gain superiority by
means of their strength, their capabilities or due to their age and experience. Just as the litter can have a "runt," the pack may have an outcast. But all wolves
cooperate with the alpha pair.
Some breeds of dogs make excellent sheep dogs because their herding instinct is strong. Herding is actually a tactic of hunting. Wolves surround their prey before
Like most other animals, dogs are guided almost entirely by instinct, and a dog's instinct tells it to seek its kind. If there is no other dog around, the dog looks
for the next best company. You have perhaps heard stories and seen pictures of dogs that adopt kittens or other animals. Watch this clip of a dog and deer friendship
A wolf rarely barks and it is possible that dogs bark more because they are domesticated. They bark to get humans' attention, but growling and whining are the
preferred methods of communicating with other dogs. A dog may whine when it wants or needs something. There are friendly growls and warning growls, but humans have
difficulty distinguishing between them. Dogs yelp when they are hurting and puppy raisers also learn to emit a high-pitched yelp when a puppy uses its razor-sharp
teeth where it shouldn't!
Persons wishing to raise a Seeing Eye puppy must attend a local club of puppy raisers for several months before they receive a puppy. Some of the best puppy raisers
are young people. One teenager in our club successfully raised 11 puppies! A number of puppy raisers have raised 25 or more puppies, and I met one lady who raised
Puppy raisers for The Seeing Eye are all volunteers and receive no pay, but The Seeing Eye pays veterinarian costs and defrays the cost of food. All young dogs like
to chew and can destroy articles of clothing, carpets and even furniture. Such expenses come out of our own pockets, so we are constantly watching and diverting
the puppy's attention with appropriate toys. We keep a can of "Bitter Apple" handy to spray on chair and table legs. Dogs don't like the taste of the stuff.
Although raising puppies is a lot of work, it also has its rewards. Youth who
raise at least two puppies by the time they graduate from High School are often
awarded a college scholarship sponsored by some donor, business or organization.
When employers read on an job applicant's resume that he or she has raised puppies for The Seeing Eye, they view that as a great bonus.
Puppy raisers for The Seeing Eye get a comprehensive folder containing information, commands, tips and guidelines along with the puppy. Guide dog training actually
takes place at The Seeing Eye, but pre-training begins soon after the puppy is born. When the puppy raiser gets a puppy at 7 weeks, it can already sit on command
and is eager to learn. Some commands are different from those used by other dog owners. When a puppy jumps up on people or furniture, the command is, "Off!" Instead
of "Stay" we use the command, "Rest." The command, "Stay back!" is used to tell the dog that it can't go with us.
Instead of the customary "heel" command, raisers teach the dog to "forward." The rear hips of the dog should be about even with the raiser's left side and the dog
should have a steady pull on the leash. Strangers sometimes ask us if we are taking the dog for a walk, or if the dog is taking us for a walk. It actually is taking us
for a walk because guide dogs lead! But even when guiding, the dog is following commands.
When we give a command, we always say the dog's name to get its attention. This could also prevent a stranger from telling the dog to do something that might cause
problems for a blind person. There is good reason for every rule even when it seems to be contrary to a dog's nature. The dog must learn "park time," eliminating
on command when and where it is told to do so. A male dog must learn not to raise its leg or "mark territory."
Most animal trainers use treats or food, but TSE puppy raisers use only patience and praise. When the puppy has difficulty understanding what it is to do,
we allow it time to process what we want. When it obeys, even if not perfectly or by chance, we still give it praise. The puppies catch on quickly and become eager
learners. Commands are seldom repeated once they are learned. If the dog doesn't respond immediately, the raiser waits patiently until it does. If a dog does something
we don't like or picks up an item it shouldn't have, we utter a sharp, "aah aah!" If it is on a leash, we may also give it a quick tug. We may have to remove an object
from the puppy's mouth, but physical punishment is not an option, nor is it necessary. Simply turning our back on the dog is sometimes sufficient correction.
A guide dog is not allowed to eat any "people food." The dog lies quietly under the table when it's master eats. We can eat hamburgers in our car and the dog doesn't
beg. This may seem cruel to many dog owners, but the guide dog will be permitted in restaurants and grocery stores, so this is an important rule. Dogs must learn to
abide by rules even when no one is watching. No blind person would want a "counter surfer" or a dog that steals and hides shoes.
Our dogs are always on a leash when away from home. In public places they usually wear a scarf or, if over six months old, a vest. They must pass a test in order to
get "vested." When we put The Seeing Eye scarf or vest on our dogs, they know that they are expected to be on their best behavior. They learn quickly to distinguish
between work and play times.
We try to expose the dogs to as many situations as possible, taking the dogs almost everywhere we go. The dogs become familiar with shops, malls, parades and traffic.
We even take our dogs to church. The dog learns to lie quietly at the feet of its master in meetings, cars, trains and on airplanes. Some airports sponsor practice
boarding for puppy raiser clubs, including a body check of the dogs. Raisers give dogs experience on stairs and in elevators, but use of an escalator is reserved
for professional trainers of The Seeing Eye. Most businesses and authorities are aware of the guide dog program and cooperate readily. We attempt to use common sense
in all situations, requesting permission when in doubt. Because our puppies are not yet fully trained, restaurants, grocery stores and swimming beaches are off limits
unless we receive special permission. There are also insurance and legal restrictions that we must abide by. Once the dogs are fully trained by The Seeing Eye and
matched with a blind person, there are very few places where a guide dog may not go.
Puppy raisers get together monthly in local clubs to learn, to share experiences and to practice obedience. When one raiser goes on vacation, another will "puppy sit."
The dogs soon realize that we all belong to the "pack." We can trade off puppies and go through the commands with no problem because all abide by the same rules.
Clubs organize outings to ball games and other events where there are crowds and unusual noises. We have taken dogs on ferry and train rides, to a live Christmas
nativity, Longwood Gardens and a Civil War Reenactment.
If the total cost of The Seeing Eye operations is divided by the number of successful matches, a Seeing Eye dog costs about $70,000! The blind person, however, pays
only a symbolical fee of $150 for the first dog. That includes travel to TSE, room, board, and equipment.
About 75% of the dogs make it through the entire guide dog program. A few are released from the program for physical reasons, others for showing fear in certain
situations or because they get too easily distracted. An OPD or "Out-of-Program Dog" often gets a "career change." We recently watched a demonstration of police dogs
by the County Sheriff's Department. After showing what one of the dogs could do in sniffing out drugs or bombs, the K-9 officer proudly said, "This is our best dog,
but he was a drop-out from The Seeing Eye." Other dogs may become therapy dogs or search and rescue dogs.
Because guide dogs are shown much kindness and gentleness, they don't get aggressive. They are often together with other dogs in the club and interact well. This
creates a problem, however, in that service dogs can be vulnerable to attacks of aggressive dogs. Some States have passed laws to protect working dogs. Owners of
dogs that injure or kill a working dog may be fined. Unfortunately, there are States that still have no such law on their books.
It is important to note that puppy raisers are not trainers. Professional training takes place at The Seeing Eye headquarters in Morristown, New Jersey after the
dog is approximately 14-15 months old. Training generally lasts four months after which the raiser is invited to go to Morristown and watch the "Town Walk." This
is a sort of "graduation exercise" in which we can watch the dog do all that it was trained to do. You can watch
"Venita's Town Walk" on YouTube.
Many people ask us how we can raise a puppy to adulthood only to part with the dog we have grown to love. There are usually a few tears when that day arrives, but
not on the part of the dog. It has become so eager to learn, that it actually anticipates the next adventure. Whoever provides care, food and direction will be the
next "pack leader."
We didn't raise our children to keep, so why should we be selfish with dogs? We are both over seventy and a dog could easily outlive us. We won't have to watch our
dog get old and make "end-of-life" decisions. Raising puppies keeps us fit, so if we feel up to it, we can always raise another.
Ralph & Verna, 2014
For more information check The Seeing Eye website: