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Journey of a Guiding Eyes Dog

Broods and Studs
The dogs in our breeding program represent the future generations of guide dogs for our organization. Only the very best dogs are selected as breeders.
Click here for the Brood Stud Program for more information and to learn about fostering a brood or stud.

Breeding
Our pups grow up to become exceptional guide dogs and service dogs because they begin with a solid foundation of good genes.

Learn more about:
Traits We Seek

  • Medium size with some variation to match a person’s physical needs (60 to 85 pounds)
  • Healthy
  • Easy coat care
  • Enjoys working with people in a partnership
  • Confident in all environments
  • Enjoys the challenge of the work
  • Stays cool, calm, and collected no matter what is going on
  • Low levels of distraction
  • Raised to have good social manners

Breeder Evaluation
Our Veterinary Department performs a comprehensive physical examination, including radiographs and other tests, on each dog. The Breeding Kennel staff plays a key role in gathering additional information on the temperament and trainability of potential breeders during their minimum two week stay.

Along with the assessment of each potential breeder, the data on all relatives are used to calculate estimated breeding values (EBVs), which identify which dogs are the genetically best.

Dogs that do not meet the high criteria for breeding but are suitable for guide dog work are returned to training. The candidate breeders remaining in the evaluation process leave the kennel and are placed temporarily with individuals or families in a home environment (either sitters or potential fosters).

When a dog officially achieves breeder status, the dog is placed with a volunteer foster family and will be brought to the Canine Development Center when needed for breeding and whelping. During their stay at our facilities, they receive daily exercise, affection, and care from specially trained staff and volunteers.

Click here for details regarding our Process for Breed Evaluation.

Guide Dog Genetics
Guiding Eyes employs industry best practices in our approach to continually improving the health, temperament, and success of our dogs. Our data-driven approach, together with our partnerships with other guide dog organizations, specialists, and universities helps to promote genetic diversity and ensure that each generation is better than the one before.

Our Data
Guiding Eyes stands out in its commitment to collecting lifetime health and temperament data on a majority of Guiding Eyes dogs.

In addition to our veterinary staff, we have remarkable support from over 70% of all dog owners; they reply to our health surveys and provide us with vital data every 2 years for the lifetime of their dogs. With the help of statistics, we can identify the top dogs with the best genes.

Guiding Eyes has been a leader in developing and sharing a powerful genetics tracking database – the result of 15 years of effort by Guiding Eyes staff and volunteer programmer, Kevin Keymer.

Every Generation, Better
Improving each successive generation relies on the ability to know which of the young adult dogs arriving for training each month have the best genes.

The way a dog behaves during temperament tests and the results from medical tests are important, but they only tell part of the story. Just as a doctor gains insight into health risks by asking about family history, Guiding Eyes uses the data on all relatives to tell us about which dogs have the highest chance of producing the desired traits. Statistical analyses called Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) are used to accurately identify the dogs with the best genes.

We thank Dr. Eldin Leighton, now retired from The Seeing Eye, who pioneered the use of EBVs in guide dogs, and Dr. Tom Famula at University of California, Davis, for helping us make use of EBVs at Guiding Eyes.

Over the years, we have reduced the incidence of hip and elbow dysplasia to nearly zero. Other traits where EBVs are used include success as a guide dog, fear of thunderstorms, body sensitivity, ear infections and skin allergies, epilepsy, and mast cell cancer.

Genetic Diversity
It is important to maintain genetic diversity in our dogs. This allows us to have the range of size and temperament to serve our clients and also reduces the likelihood of uncommon “bad” genes becoming more common.

We follow all of the key steps to limit inbreeding, which include:

  • Limiting the number of puppies any dog produces for our program. Our broods typically have 4 litters and studs typically have 10 litters.
  • Choices of which brood and stud are mated together are heavily influenced by which mating will result in puppies that have the lowest level of inbreeding.
  • Periodically adding new breeding dogs to our colony who are unrelated to our own dogs.

Working Together with Others
Guiding Eyes is world recognized by the members of the International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF) for our generous sharing of knowledge, dogs, and our database to help other organizations utilize industry best practices in breeding, genetics, puppy-raising, and training. We also benefit from other organizations that share ideas, methods, and dogs.

We collaborate with universities around the world through the provision of our health and temperament data. This has helped advance the knowledge of what traits can be best improved through breeding and which are best improved through early socialization and puppy raising. We continue to be committed to helping others have the methods and knowledge to produce high quality dogs who can make life-changing differences to the people we all serve.

In 2014, Jane Russenberger, Guiding Eyes Director of Genetics and Breeding, was honored with the prestigious Ken Lord Award for her impact on the global movement to breed healthy guide dogs with confident, stable temperaments.

Breeding Technology
A key component to our success involves excellence in the field of reproduction, most notably, the way we care for our broods and young puppies, and our scientific approach to reproduction.

Care of Our Broods and Young Puppies
Our breeding dogs all live in homes with families and come to the Canine Development Center as needed. We have a specially designed birthing room, which is equipped with a neonatal incubator and is located in a quiet space where staff are to assist and support mom and her puppies. A fully equipped veterinary facility is on site and offers video monitoring to the on-call veterinarians and staff.

Using Frozen Semen
We are experts in the field of cryogenics (freezing semen) and in a procedure called transcervical insemination, where a fiberoptic camera helps us guide an endoscope to deposit the frozen semen directly into the uterus.

We are grateful for the grant in 1993 from the Minnesota Guide Dog Breeding Center and training from Dr. Marion Wilson from New Zealand, which enabled us to become the first guide dog school in North America to establish a state-of-the-art reproduction program with cryogenics and transcervical insemination.

Transcervical insemination provides for a very positive experience for the brood because, like a natural mating, it is done comfortably and without the need for surgery and anesthesia. With the guidance from Dr. Dietrich Volkmann from the University of Missouri, we use a vasectomized male who loves his job of performing a mating immediately after the transcervical insemination is completed. This provides all of the benefits of a natural mating, thereby resulting in close to the same conception rates with frozen semen as we get from natural matings.

The ability to store and use frozen semen has allowed us the freedom to save semen on some of our males and send them on to training where they can also become guide dogs.

The Guiding Eyes reproduction lab has trained − free of charge − other guide dog schools from around the world and has made semen from quality dogs easily accessible so that others can improve their breeding colonies. Frozen semen can be shipped across the country, as well as around the world. Guiding Eyes has shipped semen as far away Australia, Japan, South Africa, and the Czech Republic, among many other countries.

Whelping
Whelping, the process of giving birth, is one of the most exciting events at the CDC. Anyone who likes dogs is sure to be enchanted with the sight of infant puppies in the Whelping Center.

Labrador retrievers and German shepherds are represented in the Guiding Eyes breeding colony. We have about 490 puppies born here every year, of which 365 are placed with our puppy raisers, 80 are placed with other organizations, and the approximate 45 pups that do not demonstrate the inclination to be a working dog are sold as cherished family pets.

Gestation
About 4 weeks after breeding, broods are brought in to the CDC Whelping Kennel to verify that they are pregnant. The gestation period in the dog is 63 days. The pregnant brood will return home for almost 5 weeks, then will be brought back to the CDC close to her expected whelp date. The staff of the Whelping Kennel works in close cooperation with the Guiding Eyes veterinarians to provide obstetrical and general medical care to the broods, while paying close attention to the physical and socialization needs of the puppies and broods.

Occasionally, broods may whelp outside the CDC at an affiliate organization or a private home. Arrangements will be made by the Whelping Kennel staff for transportation of the brood to this location shortly after ultrasound. They will also make all arrangements to ensure that care of the brood and pups is consistent with Guiding Eyes standards. Although whelps not at Guiding Eyes are rare, they are often at distances or in situations where visitation by the foster is not feasible.

The Whelping Kennel
The primary responsibilities of the Whelping Kennel are to:

  • Work closely with the brood foster to help insure a healthy pregnancy and delivery
  • Assist the brood during her whelp (birthing process) and assure that her needs are met medically and emotionally, in the most sanitary conditions possible
  • Care for the brood and her pups until the brood is returned home to her foster and the pups are ready to leave the Whelping Kennel

Guiding Eyes staff monitors each whelping, day or night, via remote video monitors. The Whelp Room was specially built to accommodate one brood during her whelp and contains a radiant (heated) floor, whelp box, and two video cameras. Activity and interruption can distract the brood, slowing the birthing process and putting the unborn puppies at risk. The video monitoring system is used to observe the whelp of the puppies without interfering with the natural birthing process. The staff can log on after hours from home and see if there is a need to come in and stay the night.

Once the whelp begins, the brood and pups are closely monitored, and assistance is provided by specially trained whelping staff. If there is cause for concern, the fetal heartbeats are monitored by ultrasound. If needed, our staff veterinarians are on call to assist or perform a cesarean section.

The average litter size is 7 puppies, and they may be born as slowly as one per hour or as quickly as one every 15 minutes.

Newborn Puppies
The puppies are checked daily to ensure they are gaining weight and given supplemental feeding if necessary. Puppies are individuals from the time they are born. Guiding Eyes names the puppies, with each litter receiving a sequential letter of the alphabet. The pups wear a collar with their name on it, and when they start hearing at 3 weeks of age, they are called by name.

All pens have heat lamps suspended over them to provide additional heat for the puppies. Puppies cannot regulate their own body temperature until they are about 10 days old.

Some litters leave the CDC with their mothers after 1 week and are raised until 6 weeks of age in a volunteer’s home under the Home Litter Care Program. Most litters and broods remain at the whelping kennel until weaning time, when the pups are around 5 weeks old and the brood is able to return to her foster home.

Early Training and Socialization
Puppies, like humans, are more accepting of a variety of stimuli if they are exposed at an early age. From birth to 16 weeks, the pups undergo a period of rapid brain development. Because guide dogs must greet myriad situations with equanimity and control, the best preparation is to be exposed to a large variety of experiences at the earliest age possible. We take advantage of this period of brain development to accustom our puppies to the sights, sounds, social interactions, and early training that will maximize their genetic potential to be a guide dog.

At Guiding Eyes
Our on-site Early Training and Socialization Program consists of staff and volunteers who are trained in massage, early training, and socialization techniques.

Volunteers come in daily to massage the puppies from the time they are 1 week old. The massage techniques used were taught by Lynn Vaughan, animal massage specialist. This early stimulation not only enhances health but also builds trust and a strong bond between the puppies and humans.

Starting at 3 weeks of age, when puppies can see and hear, we begin the critical task of socializing the puppies. Each litter receives at least 3 1-hour socialization sessions each week. Socialization is done outdoors, if weather permits, or in the purpose-built room where the puppies explore new sights, sounds, and experiences.

The pups are exposed to noises, new objects, climbing stairs, walking on grates and other strange surfaces, being in a crate, and playing with an adult dog other than its mother. The pups also begin their training by learning to respond to their name, learning to sit, stand, and down on cue for food rewards, and being in a crate.

These varied experiences become part of how the pups view life and help them readily adapt to new environments they encounter after they leave the CDC. We have an extensive pre-training program geared at developing each pup’s desire to connect with people, giving them a head start in understanding how to work with people in a positive, fun relationship. Progressive lessons taught by staff and volunteers teach puppies self-control when getting fed or picked up, to relax in a crate, and to problem-solve and develop their skills for learning.

At Home
Our Home Socialization Program involves volunteers taking one or two puppies into their home for three to five days when the puppies are six to nine weeks old.

Home socializers allow the puppies to become accustomed to a home environment, and encourage them to explore the sights and sounds of a busy household. When the puppies return to the Breeding Kennel, they are tested to see if they have the confidence and resilience needed for the Puppy Raising Program.

Puppies will have three or four experiences with home socialization families during the time they are in the Breeding Kennel. In between all the fun of visiting different homes, the puppies are again tested for their suitability for the Puppy Raising Program.

Learn more about becoming an early socializer.
Learn more about becoming a home socializer.

Puppy Testing
Guiding Eyes collects extensive behavioral data on our puppies between 4 to 8 weeks of age and conducts a formal puppy test at 7-1/2 weeks old. The data help us decide on the career path that best suits each puppy and helps us match the puppies with their puppy raisers.

We look for patterns of behavior indicating how well the puppy adapts to change, its quickness of learning, its energy level, its reactions to noises and novel objects after repeated socialization, and finally its willingness to turn its attention to people, even when tempted by sniffing or another dog. These characteristics are a good indication that the puppy can potentially succeed as a guide dog.

Puppies demonstrating less adaptability are often the ones who prefer to be cuddled − these puppies make ideal pets. Others with high energy and strong preferences to sniff and pursue their own instinctual interests are placed as future detection dogs. Some special dogs are provided to organizations such as NEADS that specialize in training service dogs.

Puppy Raising
Puppies selected as future Guiding Eyes guide dogs are placed in volunteer puppy raiser homes for 12 to 18 months. Our amazing puppy raisers teach socialization skills and provide all kinds of life adventures. All of the raiser’s hard work culminates when a blind person receives his or her priceless gift – a guide dog providing independence, companionship, and mobility.

Our network of puppy raisers is a diverse group! Couples, families with children, young adults, senior citizens, urban, suburban, rural, living in apartments, town-homes, and single family homes.

Sixty-seven percent of our raisers are repeat raisers, meaning they have raised more than one Guiding Eyes puppy. We are extremely proud that so many raisers enjoy our program enough to renew their commitment to raise another puppy. A few have raised as many as 43 puppies!

Please visit the Puppy Raising Program section for more information on puppy raising.

Alternative Careers
Only those dogs showing the self-confidence and composure necessary for guide work are assigned to undergo the rigors of guide dog training.

These dogs have demonstrated enthusiasm and a desire to undertake the tasks of working in harness. Ultimately, we believe each dog “chooses its own career.” Sometimes the temperament traits that make a dog unsuitable for guide dog work are the specific traits ideal for detection, law enforcement, or other service dog work.

Learn more about how we select dogs for guide dog training here.

Learn about adopting a released dog here.

Guide Dog Training
After leaving their puppy raisers, dogs are assigned to a guide dog instructor, who will develop a relationship with the dog through play, obedience, and general time together. The instructor will work with each dog for at least 5 months.

Training is a continuous process that includes teaching the dog the concepts of guiding in small steps and building upon previous lessons with many of repetitions in a great variety of situations. Eventually, the dog understands and is comfortable with all aspects of guide work. A guide dog is ready for placement with a blind partner when the dog responds reliably and safely to all work situations it will encounter while guiding.

Training Our Dogs
Although training is a continuous process, it can logically be thought of in four phases, with each dog working at its own pace.

Phase 1
The guide dog learns the basics of forward, wait, and “hup-up” (work in a straight line while avoiding obstacles and resuming the original direction). This work is conducted at the Guiding Eyes Training Center and its surrounding neighborhood.

Phase 2
Trainers reinforce the lessons of Phase I, introduce new environments (suburban villages) and unusual underfootings (such as metal gratings).

Phase 3
Dogs are asked to perform learned tasks on their own initiative, without assistance from the trainer. It requires continual praise and hundreds of repetitions in different situations before the dog understands what is expected and can respond reliably to cues.

Phase 4
Dogs fine-tune their skills and apply their knowledge to new situations in larger cities and more distracting environments. In this final phase, the dogs learn “intelligent disobedience,” such as refusing to obey a forward command if there is a car approaching.

Creating guide dog teams
Guiding Eyes is known for our ability to find the right dog for each person. This individualized attention continues throughout the process of teaching a person to work with his or her new guide dog partner.

Learn more about our training programs here.

Working Guide Dogs
Blind and visually impaired men and women from across the United States and foreign countries come to the Training Center to meet their Guiding Eyes dogs and undertake a rigorous 19-day training program, which is offered throughout the year.

Each year some 160 new student/Guiding Eyes dog teams benefit from Guiding Eyes services.

Learn more about becoming a Guiding Eyes Student here.

To learn more about how a dog becomes a guide dog, click here.