City Residents Guide Dogs That May Guide

 In News & Events

LUCY COHEN BLATTER – 01/12/2008

On a recent Monday evening, four New Yorkers participated in a far-sighted exercise: coaching Labrador puppies to sit and stay during a round of musical chairs. The men and women holding the leashes were not dogs owners but “raisers” — volunteers who train dogs in obedience, socialization, and house manners from the age of eight weeks to about 16 months so they can go on to become guides for the blind.

These raisers, gathered at their weekly training class at a dog spa in Chelsea, are part of Guiding Eyes for the Blind’s first-ever New York City chapter. Though other area organizations send dogs on field trips into Manhattan, and some, such as the Suffolk County-based Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, have raisers scattered around the five boroughs, Westchester-based Guiding Eyes is the first organization to open a division entirely dedicated to raising dogs in the city.

The first group began raising puppies in July; a second kicked off in September, and a third will start soon, with a pre-puppy raising information class scheduled for today.

“Unlike puppy raisers in rural areas, New Yorkers don’t have to go far to expose their dogs to the noise and traffic they’ll have to deal with when they become guide dogs,” New York City regional manager of Guiding Eyes, Rachel Silverman, said.

That raisers can acclimate puppies to buses and subways is also a plus.

Puppy raising in the city has its own set of obstacles: teaching a dog that is not yet house-trained to wait for an elevator takes patience, and keeping a dog focused on training while walking down streets with so many distractions is not an easy task.

A major obstacle for both rural and city raisers is that, after training and bonding with their dogs, they will have to part with them for good.

A member of Guiding Eyes’s first group of city raisers, Kim Nichtman, who lives in Queens with her husband, Russell, and five children, said she’s worked hard to prepare her family for the eventual departure of their Guiding Eyes dog, Dagwood.

With Dagwood slated to move on to the second stage of training in January, she said, “We have mixed feelings. Having a puppy can be really challenging. And the adolescent stage was particularly hard.”

Unlike raising a pet, bringing up a dog for the blind requires strict rules: insisting that the dog always sleep in a kennel; not allowing it to jump up on people and furniture, and not letting the dog eat scraps from the family table. While many pet owners relish cuddling with their animals on their couches or beds, that’s off limits for guide dogs in training, because teaching boundaries is so important. “Keeping on task is not always easy,” Mrs. Nichtman said.

After leaving their raisers’ homes, puppies take part in an “In-for-Training” evaluation, which Guiding Eyes’s regional marketing manager, Linda Damato, likens to “their college entrance exam.” Only 50% of the yearly brood of 600 puppies born to Guiding Eyes each year makes it to the guide dog-training stage. However, because the dogs are trained for work, even if they don’t go on to become guides, there are plenty of other options. They can become smoke- or bomb-sniffing dogs, therapy dogs, or search and rescue dogs. The top 3% to 4% become breeders at the organization’s canine development center in Patterson, N.Y., and can give birth to multiple litters throughout their lifetimes. Those who don’t make it as work dogs or breeder dogs are released for adoption.

An actor and co-artistic director of Theater by the Blind, George Ashiotis, who has been blind for most of his life, is on his third Guiding Eyes dog and says he would never go back to life without one. “The chief reason for getting a dog is fluidity in motion. When you use a cane, it’s about getting from point A to point B, but with a dog, I can walk at my natural speed and enjoy the pleasure of a walk.” Mr. Ashiotis, who lives in Chelsea with his dog, Blake, said he’s never had trouble acclimating dogs to city life (one of the advantages of using the highly adaptable and easily trainable Lab breed), but he said he imagines dogs raised in New York City “will be even more terrific at it.”

During the training, Guiding Eyes covers all veterinary needs with an in-house vet, so raisers pay only for food, toys, and supplies. “Each of our dogs costs about $45,000,” Ms. Damato said. “I can’t overstate how much we appreciate these puppy raisers,” she said. “They are the heart and soul of this organization.”

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