My Seeing Eye Dog in training, Crista and I walk on the sidewalk on our way home. She pulls extremely hard, and I try my hardest to keep her under control so she doesn’t end up dragging me. I keep giving short tugs on the leather leash, but all it does is give me painful blisters, so I stop her and have her sit.
At first, Crista rejects by trying to jump up. I sternly tell her “no” and correct her into a sit. I wait a few seconds until she’s calm enough, then say “forward,” and we continue towards the house. Shekeeps pulling, and I keep trying to get her to stop. When we get back home, after I immediately crash down onto the couch with exhaustion, Crista happily brings a bone to my feet. I watch her loudly gnaw at the bone and sigh. I’ll try again tomorrow.
The Seeing Eye, formed in 1929 by Morris Frank, is the oldest guide dog school in the country and operates out of Morristown, New Jersey. Only dogs that come from this institution can be formally called Seeing Eye Dogs. The Seeing Eye has four different types of breeds: German shepards, golden retrievers, yellow, black, and chocolate labrador retrievers, and poodles for those who have allergies. It’s also common to see golden/lab crosses as well.
Seeing Eye Dogs, along with guide dogs under other organizations, are classified as service animals. This means that they are specifically trained to perform tasks to ease a challenge faced by their owner, like performing a medical alert on someone who has seizures or reminding someone to take medication.
I’ve been a Seeing Eye puppy raiser for nearly seven years now, and I am currently training a six-month-old black lab named Crista. We receive the puppies at seven weeks old and raise them in our homes until they are 16 months old, with the hope that they will complete the rest of their training at the Seeing Eye and be paired with a blind person.
As a puppy raiser, it’s my responsibility to make sure that my puppy is able to successfully perform their job. I prepare by taking them to different locations like malls, restaurants and other high-traffic areas. I also go on several club outings such as to the Liberty Science Center, on a train ride to New York City and attending plays. If I’m not with my club and am going into a building with my puppy, I have to make sure to either call ahead or ask as soon as I arrive if I’m allowed in with my puppy. I also have to keep a form of identification for the puppy on hand in case I’m stopped and asked why I’m on the premises.
Training a Seeing Eye puppy comes with challenges. We work hard to make sure each puppy has the qualities needed to become a guide, and we primarily focus on obedience training. From a young age, we housebreak them and teach them to “park” on command. We teach basic commands like sit, down, and rest so that they perform the command as soon as it’s spoken. If a dog refuses to do one of these commands, we help them to perform it by gently using repetition.
We also focus on walking our dogs. Seeing Eye Dogs need to be able to lead, so they have to always be in front of their human. I’ve had a great deal of challenges in this area, like training dogs who balked, didn’t like specific surfaces, and dogs who pulled too hard. We use several commands for this type of behavior: “hup hup,” which tells the dog to speed up; “easy,” which tells them to slow down, and many others. We also use quick, short tugs on their leashes for both correction and pacing, and keep our left hands firmly on the leash to keep the dog at our left side.
At club meetings, we perform the basket weave maneuver with the dogs to teach them to ignore other dogs or distractions. We also perform the “come and sit” command, which is when we walk forward, then walk back while saying “come,” go forward again, and have the dog sit at our left side. This is often used as a way to reposition a dog if they are misbehaving. However, it’s important to note that we aren’t trying to make our dogs perfect or knock out their personalities. When their harnesses are off, they’re just regular dogs who love to play and snuggle. All we’re doing is teaching them how to behave and work in public places so that in the future, they can successfully do their job and help someone.
When our time with our puppies is up, they get taken back to the Seeing Eye to finish their training. Not all dogs pass the program, whether due to fear, behavior or medical reasons. In fact, there is currently only a 30% - 40% success rate due to a lack of students during the pandemic, and the rate is normally 60%. If the puppies do fail, we call them a “career changed” to signify that they went on to do something else, like police work in the K-9 unit or breeders at the Seeing Eye. Most commonly, their raisers can choose to adopt them, or they go to someone on a very long waiting list who wants to adopt a dog.
Saying goodbye is always the hardest part of raising. You’d think that I would have been used to it by now, but I’m not. When the time comes, a white Seeing Eye van pulls up to my house, and out comes our area coordinator, Katie. We talk and are given some time to say goodbye, but then we have to put the puppy into the crate in the van and watch them drive away. It’s heartbreaking every single time. Yet, beneath all of that sadness is the hope that my puppy will eventually get to provide a service for someone who needs it. And if not, then I’ll take them back in a heartbeat. I’ve had to permanently say goodbye to two of my dogs, yellow labs Diva and Holgate. Diva was adopted by another family close to Morristown, and I don’t know what happened to Holgate.
I currently have two of my career change dogs living with me permanently: Dutch, a yellow/golden lab cross, and Fav, a yellow lab. I have only had one dog pass the program: my yellow lab Trina, who's currently in Missouri working as a Seeing Eye Dog. But who knows, if she retires and her current owner doesn’t want to keep her, then there’s the possibility that she can come back home to me.
Training a dog sounds like a piece of cake, but it’s not. It can get very stressful, especially if your dog won’t do what they are supposed to. However, we do the best that we can, and it pays off when we get to see our dog succeed. Right now, that’s all the motivation that I need as I train Crista.