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All in the Family – sharing the experience

Raisers Mary, her sister Anne, daughter and son in law Deb & Rick on steps with 3 Guiding Eyes dogs
Mary with released dog Phineas (4P17), Anne with Sean (6V22), Deb and Rick with Artemis (8A321)

Puppy raisers play a crucial role in teaching puppies basic obedience, socialization, and love. They come from all walks of life – individuals, families with kids, college students, retirees, and couples. The one thing they have in common is a love for dogs and a desire to help provide someone with a life-changing gift of independence, confidence, and safety. Raisers bond with the puppy, watch them grow and learn, and become an integral part of their journey. It’s a rewarding experience that not only has a positive impact on a person who is blind or visually impaired, but can also have a ripple effect, inspiring others in a family and creating a shared sense of purpose.

What I’ve come to appreciate over the years is that puppy raising and volunteering with Guiding Eyes really is like being part of a big family.  We are all invested in raising and supporting these incredible pups, but we build life-long relationships along the way.
~Mary Oonk, Region Co-Coordinator & Puppy Raiser

Mary Oonk, Co-Region Coordinator in Central NY, has been a puppy raiser for many years, providing a foundation for guide dogs Seth, Gerry, Paprika, Ambrie, Emmylou, and detection dogs Cedar and Denver.  She’s raised thirteen or so puppies, although she says, “I don’t really keep track any more.  I’ve puppy-raised, been a traditional puppy sitter, done long term sits, started puppies, finished puppies and co-raised.  Administratively, I’ve been everything from region helper to Region Coordinator.  One of the best things about puppy raising/volunteering is that there are so many different ways to be involved.”    

Dan and puppy Pongo - 2005
Dan & new puppy Pongo in 2005

Mary recounts that all the credit for getting them involved with Guiding Eyes goes to her son Dan.  “As a youngster, he was the one that took care of our family dog.  He never had to be asked. When we saw a notice for volunteer puppy raisers, it seemed like something right up his alley.  The group in Central NY was so welcoming, friendly, and helpful – we were hooked!  We’ve made wonderful, close friendships with members of the Central NY region and beyond.”   

Dan Oonk became the family’s first official puppy raiser in 2005 at the age of 13.  The first puppy, a male black Lab named Pongo, was his responsibility and Mary played a supportive role. Dan’s sister Deborah had just started her freshman year at Syracuse University, but when home on break took an active role with whichever puppy was being raised.  While on program, Pongo became a medical release, but he and Dan went on to help others as a therapy dog team.  Mary continued raising and years later, Deb, (now Seltzer), and husband Rick landed in Guiding Eyes’ Baltimore Region, where she raised Artemis, a male black Lab. Artemis is currently in guide dog training in Yorktown after passing his IFT in June 2023. Since then, they have continued to support Guiding Eyes as puppy sitters. 

Then there is Mary’s cousin Kevin Bentson and wife JoEllen of North Carolina. At the time, they were living only a town away from the Canine Development Center, and Mary recalls,  “I would often visit them when taking pups back to Guiding Eyes. JoEllen had talked about getting another dog and I told her they should consider becoming breeding dog fosters since they lived so close.”  The Bentson’s became stud fosters for German Shepherd, Harris, who coincidentally, had been raised in Mary’s Central NY Region. He became a significant breeder and cherished member of the family for many years.

The family connection to Guiding Eyes continues with Mary’s sister Anne McCabe, currently raising male black Lab Sean, in the Monroe NY region. Her son Jack, a college student at St. John Fisher University in Rochester, is also very active in Sean’s training. According to Mary,  “Anne and her family have always been dog lovers.  Many of our Guiding Eyes pups have visited her home over the years.  After the last family dog passed, she was drawn to the idea of volunteering with a dog-related organization and decided the time was right to give puppy raising a try.” 

Mary adds, “I’ve been very fortunate to be in touch with my pups’ partners.  It’s so rewarding to know the impact these pups can have. Guiding Eyes is such an amazing community of individuals all brought together by these incredible dogs. How amazing that we can take all the joy these dogs bring to us and then share it with someone for whom it can be life changing!”     

Dan Oonk with Pongo, GEB released dog with therapy vest
Dan Oonk with Pongo, (1PP05), as a therapy dog
JoEllen with GEB stud dog Harris (1H414) and granddaughter Abigail
JoEllen with Harris (1H414) and granddaughter Abigail
Deb and Mary with Artemis
Deb and Mary with pup Artemis, (8A321), in 2022