Guide Dogs In Training

 In News & Events

By Donna Manz, The Connection – 02/18/2009

Local families raise puppies for the blind

The candidate failed training school; she was too active. But her innate talent, industriousness and perseverance caught the eye of an alternate agency. Joy went on to an illustrious career with a Prince George’s County arson squad, where she earned a letter of commendation for her work with a serial arsonist investigation.

Joy is a Guiding Eyes for the Blind service dog, raised and trained by an Oakton couple, Barbara and Dick Lippert.

“We never got an unteachable dog,” Barbara Lippert said. “Pups that do not qualify as Guiding Eyes for the Blind service dogs are picked up by other agencies. Raisers always have the opportunity to get back a dog that does not qualify as a working dog.”

On command, the Lipperts’ puppy Gerta, and their “guest” pup, Libby, came racing out of their crates into the living room. Gerta, a 9-month-old black lab, is the Lipperts’ sixth dog. Visitor Libby, a golden retriever of 11 months, bounded into the room with Gerta’s soft bed hanging from her mouth.

“The reason we started doing this in the first place goes back to about 2001,” Barbara Lippert said. “I met a woman with a dog wearing the blue training jacket. She told me about the program and we filed it away in the back of our minds.

“Dick wanted to travel when he retired so we did not want to commit to having a dog.”

INSTEAD, they have committed to six dogs … so far.

Foster families get a puppy from Guiding Eyes for the Blind when the pup is approximately 7 to 8 weeks old. The dog lives as a family member, with more privileges than most dogs will ever have. The Americans with Disabilities Act provides that no service dog can be turned away when working. The dog is an extension of the life of a disabled person.

Part of the socialization process a pup raiser engages in is bringing the puppy to any place a person would normally go, said Oakton foster parent, Michele Khol. Khol’s son, Curtis, a senior at Madison High School, and her daughter, Betsy, have each taken on the responsibility and commitment of raising a pup.

“Raising these puppies is not for everyone,” Michele Khol said. “But raising them becomes part of who you are.”

Service dogs in training will go on trains, planes, buses and in cars. They go to the fireworks on the National Mall, to movie theatres, to restaurants, parks and petting zoos. The dogs are bred for confidence and calmness, Dick Lippert said. The hunting instinct is bred out. A graduate of the Guiding Eyes for the Blind program will not be distracted from doing his job. When the training jacket is on, the dog goes to work. As a working service dog, the dog recognizes his harness as his signal he is working.

“It’s a perfect life for a dog,” Barbara Lippert said. “What does a dog want more than to be with his person 24 hours a day, every day? They never get left home.”

By the time that the pups leave foster care for training at the Guiding Eyes for the Blind facility in New York state, they will have mastered basic commands: take it, not yours, sit, down, stand, stay, heel, come, close, over, paw, give and close. A service dog sits or lies at the feet of his person and when on public transportation, sits facing forward.

RAISING A SERVICE DOG is a family affair. Training time is wasted if the dog is left on his own and family members pitch in to support the dog’s training and welfare. While Curtis Khol is in class at Madison or practicing track and field, his mother Michele takes over Elgin’s care and socialization.

“First thing in the morning when I get up, I feed the dogs. I take them out before I go to school,” said Curtis Khol, an Eagle Scout. “Sometimes, I bring my dogs to classes with me. The principals and teachers are happy to allow my dogs in the schoolrooms.

“The dogs are jacketed to show they are working service dogs. Even kids who don’t know me will come up and ask if I’m the pup raiser.

“It’s not something most high-school kids would want to do because it’s such a big time commitment. You have to give up a lot of social activities,” he said.

Curtis Khol will talk with any teen who is interesting in learning more about raising a service dog, he said.

Curt Khol, Michele’s husband, occasionally takes a pup to work with him at the Pentagon.

It was a 13-year-old Betsy Khol who introduced her family to fostering a service dog. At a Girl Scout summer camp, Betsy Khol heard a presentation by an Oakton resident who had authored a book on raising a service dog. Betsy Khol was hooked.

Betsy Khol brought Buster, a 16-month-old black lab, to school with her this year at Rochester Institute of Technology. It took the Khols four months to go through the process of authorization; Buster is RIT’s first service dog in training. He lives in a dorm room with Betsy and her roommate, who, said Betsy Khol, is happy to have a dog there.

At the Khols’ house, humans stash treats in their pockets for rewarding their trainees’ positive behavior. The family’s newest addition, 8-week-old pup, Faraday, wriggles and squirms, but has role models to look up to in the Khol home. Elgin, at 16 months, is Curtis’ second service dog in training. Eagle, 5 years old, is living out his retirement as the Khols’ family pet. Betsy Khol raised Eagle but it didn’t work out with his blind companion, so Betsy was offered Eagle back. “He’s a very sweet dog,” Michele Khol said. “He’s a teacher to the pups.”

FOSTERING A SERVICE DOG started out as Barbara Lippert’s project but soon Dick Lippert became as much into it as Barbara is. Dick, said his wife, always loved dogs and is good with them. When he was in high school, Dick Lippert had a dog walking business because he had no dog of his own.

Gerta goes to work with Dick Lippert once a week. Soon, Gerta will take her vacation with a puppy sitter as Libby is doing now at the Lippert home. Service dogs are not allowed to go into boarding kennels. Service dogs in training are required to have a minimum four-day overnight sits once every quarter.

“It’s hard when the pups you raised go off to training school but you think of the people they’ll be helping,” said Barbara Lippert. “It’s like when kids go off to college. On one hand, you miss them terribly. But, on the other hand, you know they’re right where they should be and you feel proud that all the work you did is paying off.”

“You shed some tears when they graduate,” said Dick Lippert, “but you know you’ll get another pup that you’ll start through the process.”

The Lipperts’ previous pup, Chanel No. 5 — the Lippert’s fifth service dog — made it into the Guiding Eyes for the Blind “elite” breeding program. Chanel was in the top 4 percent of puppies to “pass on their superior traits to future generations of guide dogs,” said the official congratulatory letter. The Lipperts are in line to take in one of Chanel’s pups, the Lipperts’ seventh foster pup.

“It’s an ongoing relationship if the blind person desires,” said Barbara Lippert. The Lipperts have maintained a friendship with A.J., a young blind man now engaged, who graduated with a Lippert pup a couple of years ago.

Barbara Lippert makes scrapbooks dedicated to each pup she and Dick have raised. The photos are captioned with a description inspired by the moment, written from the pup’s point of view. “Goodbye” shows the Lipperts with their service dog at graduation.

She volunteers to drive the region’s van to New York state occasionally to bring the socialized puppies up for their guide dog training. “I get to bring back new puppies, which is always fun, especially when one is for me,” she said.

Dick Lippert is the “crate” man for the region; he stores them in his home. Barbara Lippert calls herself “Mrs. Crateman” because much of the work is left to her during the day.

“What I get out of this,” said Dick Lippert, “is the satisfaction of knowing a blind person will gain a tremendous amount of freedom and independence from having one of these guide dogs.

“And there’s the enjoyment of working with these dogs who are really good dogs. Each one is like a project and you have the satisfaction of seeing the results of the project when they go off and graduate.”

Barbara Lippert said she gets all the same things out of this that her husband does and more. “I was bored when I wasn’t working anymore so the dogs get me into the outside world. They have put me back in touch with my neighbors.”

Guiding Eyes for the Blind GIVES the service dogs to blind people at no charge. The organization has developed a service dog program for autistic children called “Heeling Autism.” Guiding Eyes for the Blind has a broad reach; it has sent service dogs off to the Connecticut State Police and other law enforcement agencies in the eastern U.S. and Canada.

“It takes a unique type of person to do this,” said Michele Khol. “Everyone who does this does it for the love of dogs and a commitment to help blind people and autistic children.”

Betsy Khol said the experience of letting her first pup go into training was the hardest. After the first graduation, she said, you see that you’re involved with a worthy organization and after the first time, “it’s not that hard.”

“You start with a puppy and then you get to see them graduate,” said Betsy Khol. “All the hard work, time and energy pays off.

“The dogs are not really yours. That mentality makes it easier to let go. Your goal is to have them work for somebody else, somebody who needs them to be independent.”

TEENS INTERESTED in learning more about raising a service dog are welcomed to contact Curtis Khol at Kholcm@verizon.net. To learn more about Guiding Eyes for the Blind or becoming a pup raiser, go to visit our Heeling Autism page.

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