Giving the Gift of Freedom

 In News & Events

RACHEL LAMB – Asst. Life Editor – 07/08/2009

Imagine being a normal person with a normal life and one day, everything comes to a grinding halt.

For many people, losing the ability to see might seem like the end of it all. However, one organization wants to show that it doesn’t have to be that way.

At Guiding Eyes for the Blind, Labrador retrievers and German shepherds are trained to obey and be the eyes for those who cannot see. Guiding Eyes, a non-profit organization started in 1954, has since graduated over 7,000 guide dog teams. Dogs are placed in every state in the United States and in countless countries including Spain, Portugal, Italy, Columbia and Poland.

Linda Damato, Guiding Eyes director of puppy program support services, believes the organization is one of the best out there for those who are looking for a partner in life.

“It is a top guide dog school with cutting edge training,” Damato said. “We are very focused on building a relationship with the dogs, starting at birth, with positive interactions… so that they love to work with people.”

The organization thrives on volunteers to assist in the development of the puppies. They take them into their homes and train them, love them, and take care of them as the dogs grow up and learn key skills that will assist them in their development.

Volunteers also bring the puppies to classes where they go through a progression of step training.

“The classes are built on steps,” Damato said. “Dogs will learn how to sit, how to deal with distractions, and learn how to stay on task. We try to make the classes a fun way for the puppies to learn how to be good guide dogs through games and discipline.”

At 18 months, the puppies return to the organization’s headquarters in Yorktown Heights, NY for formal training. However, not all of the puppies trained become guide dogs. Though it is their top goal, not all dogs are destined for guiding.

“Guiding Eyes has affiliations with the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, as well as state and local agencies and organizations that train and place dogs for detection work,” Damato said.

In addition to police work, guide dogs not placed in homes often work with Heeling Autism, an organization that places canines into homes to protect children with Autism. With the dogs’ outstanding temperaments, they have ideal dispositions for dealing with children with the developmental disorder, according to Damato.

The organization has volunteers raising possible future guide dogs in almost 40 regions, from Maine to North Carolina, and even as far west as Ohio. Some volunteers are students, raising them in schools like RIT, Cornell, and Stevenson University.

“Students raising these dogs in [their] dorms are a great way for dogs to get socialization and for them to meet new people,” Damato said. “They get comfortable meeting people, going up stairs, and they learn to deal with distractions and stay on task while they’re working.”

For dogs that are not able to become working dogs in any field, they are given another job; becoming family pets. The dogs are adopted through Guiding Eyes so that they can be placed in homes across the country. The adoption process is somewhat rigorous, where interested families are screened and undergo background checks so that the dogs are placed with the most loving of families.

The Fox family of Lancaster, NY is currently raising their second puppy, a yellow Labrador retriever named Iman. The Fox’s, parents Jamie and Lynn, along with their three daughters Sara, Alyssa and Megan, found out about Guiding Eyes through a local newspaper.

“We take the puppies everywhere that we can… the library, the bank, even to Grandma’s house and on vacation,” Lynn said. “We took [our first puppy] Calista to school plays and concerts when she got old enough, but we wouldn’t take the puppies to a large place like the Galleria Mall if they were not ready to deal with it. They have to take baby steps and work up to that.”

The Fox family helps Guiding Eyes by presenting information for Girl Scout troops, schools and the Lions Club in Lancaster. The oldest daughter, Sara, went to the headquarters in Yorktown Heights and learned about the formal training process.

“It impressed me how well the puppies were treated and how well everyone worked together,” Lynn said. “They are very involved in the [history of each dog] and getting to know the families that raise them as well.”

All of the Fox’s agree that giving up the puppies is the hardest part about the process, but when they do, they feel like they have accomplished something great and are proud to help enrich another person’s life by training a dog.

Volunteers are always needed at Guiding Eyes. Those who are interested in becoming possible future guide dog raisers, or volunteering in other ways, can contact the organization through its Web site at http://volunteer.guidingeyes.org.

Thanks also to Mary Ellen Pratt’s determination that this article came to it’s completion!

E-mail: spectrum-features@buffalo.edu

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