|| RAISING PUPPIES FOR THE SEEING EYE
Since our retirement we have been 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 our own perspective after a few years of experience.
We have the dogs for a little over a year after which they return to
Morristown, NJ and receive four months of formal training. Once the dogs
have passed all the physical and training tests, it spends another month at
The Seeing Eye headquarters adapting to the blind person with which it will
Our first dog, Venita, was a Lab/Golden mix that went to a lady in North
Carolina. Pumpkin was our second dog, also a mix. She was placed with a man
in New York State. Our third dog, TR, was a beautiful German Shepherd. After
TR, came Betsy and Nina. We hope to continue this task as long as we are
physically able. In some ways, the puppies keep us young, but in other ways
they make us older!
Although people have other house pets, only one is commonly domesticated.
Some might argue that cats are in the same category, but we have had both,
and cats are never domesticated! Dogs belong to the family, but the family
and everything else belong to a cat!
FROM WOLVES TO GUIDE DOGS
Dogs descended from wolves, which do not make good pets. Wolves are
inherently pack animals. We hear the term, "lone wolf," but that is a
rarity. Even in zoos, wolves are seldom kept alone. 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, but
dogs have adapted to humans over time. They are still pack animals by
nature, which is why a dog gets excited when it sees another dog.
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
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 attacking.
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!
The Seeing Eye has its own breeding station and utmost care is given to the
selection of breeders. Parent dogs are selected according to learning
capability as much as their physical condition.
Each litter receives a letter of the alphabet and all puppy names begin with
that letter. We often joke about some of the puppy names. "TR" is the
international country code for Turkey, but he was a magnificent German
Shepherd! By inserting the German word for "dogs" ("HUNDE") between those
two letters, you get "THUNDER," which would seem more appropriate. But
raisers don't name the dogs. Johnny Cash sang about "A Boy Named Sue" and we
try to explain to people why our black dog was named "Pumpkin" and her
yellow brother was named "Pilgrim." Another Golden Retriever was named
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. We have a teenager in our local club
who has successfully raised 11 puppies! A number of puppy raisers have
raised 25 or more puppies, and we met one lady who raised 75!
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 their 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.
Puppy raisers meet monthly in local club meetings where they share
experiences with other raisers, get help with problems, practice obedience
and learn new techniques. An area coordinator is always available when
needed. 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.
Where else can you find young people and seniors working side-by-side and
enjoying each other's company?
Clubs organize outings to ball games and other events where there are crowds
and unusual noises. We have taken our dogs on ferry and steam train rides,
to a live Christmas nativity, to Longwood Gardens and a Civil War
Reenactment. We try to expose the dogs to as many situations as possible,
taking them almost everywhere we go. They become familiar with shops, malls,
parades, traffic and private homes. Some raisers take their dogs to church
or college classes. The dog learns to lie quietly at the feet of its master
in meetings, cars, trains and even 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 using an
escalator is reserved for professional trainers at 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 also do public demonstrations in order to educate the public
about service dogs. We visit schools, clubs and gatherings and also give
demos in malls and at the fairground.
GUIDE DOGS ARE "EDUCATED"
Some ordinary 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.
There is good reason for every rule even when it seems 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
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.
The puppies we are raising have a unique and special job ahead of them. They
are therefore raised differently from other dogs. A raiser gets the puppy at
7 weeks and it can already sit on command and is eager to learn. The Seeing
Eye provides a comprehensive folder containing information, commands, tips
and guidelines for raising the puppy.
The primary goal of education is "learning how to think" and not just
absorbing knowledge. Most dogs are taught to obey commands, but guide dogs
are taught to obey if it’s okay. That is the difference between educating
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 the dog is taking us for a walk. It actually is taking us for a walk
because that is what guide dogs do! Our pups lead!
A guide dog normally follows commands, but strict obedience is not what we
are looking for in a guide dog. They must be confident enough to disobey a
command! The Seeing Eye calls this "intelligent disobedience."
This is quite contrary to most styles of dog training. If a Seeing Eye dog
is commanded to go into a dangerous situation it must refuse to obey the
command. If we are overly demanding and controlling, it will affect the
dogs' ability to disregard a command when necessary.
Guide dogs learn to reason and watch for the unexpected. Already in the
breeding station, workers suspend mobiles overhead to catch the puppy's
attention. Our puppies are always on a leash when not in the house or yard.
If they try to lead us through a narrow place or under a low hanging branch,
we stop until they choose a path that we can also use. I once slipped and
fell on our icy driveway. The puppy showed genuine concern and was always
careful after that incident.
The dog will later have to figure a way around a barricaded sidewalk in a
big city, or decide if it’s safe to cross a street. A dog that is used to
extremely strict obedience would stand and wait to be told what to do
instead of finding a solution to the problem.
NO "PEOPLE FOOD"
Most animal trainers use treats or food, but The Seeing Eye puppy raiser
uses 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
A guide dog is not allowed to eat "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
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.
ATTAINING THE GOAL
If the total cost of The Seeing Eye operations is divided by the number of
successful matches, a Seeing Eye dog costs about $65,000! 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 70% 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 program." Other dogs become therapy dogs or search and rescue
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 are vulnerable
to attacks by 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 12-14 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 our first
"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 V. Harvey, January, 2013
Read my book revue of Susan Orlean's new book about Rin Tin Tin (May 7, 2012 blog).
For more information check these websites:
The Seeing Eye: http://www.seeingeye.org/
Cumberland County Seeing Eye Puppy Raisers: http:www.cc4hpuppypower.org