Training a New Pair of Eyes
by Ali Sorg
About the author: Ali Sorg is a recent high school graduate from Indiana. She enjoys keeping active and spending time with her friends and family. She plans to pursue a career in Nursing after attending Hope College. Ali wrote this profile in conjunction with Jessica Walsh as an assignment in a senior composition class taught by Kathy Nimmer, a Guiding Eyes graduate who is partnered with Nacho, a yellow lab guide dog.
Jessica Walsh could easily be described as someone who lives in the present and makes sure that everyone in her life is both impacting her positively and being impacted by her positively. Jessica resides in New York; she enjoys photography in her free time and traveling to new places. Jessica is also lucky enough to combine her volunteer work with her career. Being a puppy raiser while also working at Guiding Eyes for the Blind is a unique opportunity that allows her to use her expertise to help others.
Jessica’s life as a puppy raiser began when she least expected it. On a day when she just planned to take the kids she was babysitting to the pool, she spotted something that sparked an interest. Anyone would be distracted by two lab puppies running around in all their glory and fluff, but there was more than just their adorable actions that brought Jessica curiosity. These puppies were only a couple months old yet they were behaved enough to be in an enclosed public place together off-leash while the owners just watched. Approaching the two ladies in disbelief, she asked how they managed to train the dogs to be that obedient, and they responded, “Guiding Eyes for the Blind!” According to their website, Guiding Eyes breeds, raises, and trains guide dogs in preparation to be matched with individuals who are blind in order to meet their respective needs. The two women told Jessica about the general process of puppy raising, and before she knew it, she was at home on her computer finding out how she could do the same! Little did she know, that conversation would lead her to years of memories and even a career.
To start her career journey with Guiding Eyes, Jessica began with volunteering at the Whelping Kennel where she learned the ins and outs of working with newborn puppies and early socialization of older puppies. From there she became a Regional Helper and then began working as an employee for Guiding Eyes for the Blind where she continues to be a Kennel Tech at the Training School. Being a part of the program gives her a perspective that most puppy raisers don’t experience. The “normal” puppy raising process includes receiving the puppy in its earliest stages, raising them for several months, and teaching them all they need to know and then taking them back to Guiding Eyes where the training continues and testing begins. Instead of only participating in the beginning stages, Jessica sees what the training actually leads to since she works at the school. As a puppy raiser, she knows to teach the puppy certain commands, but at work when she works blindfolded beside a trained dog, she is able to experience how it all ultimately comes together. By getting to work with other trainers and seeing how they work, she is able to learn more and bring more techniques to her dogs at home.
So far, Jessica has personally raised two dogs on her own. Missy, who is a female yellow Lab, kept a strong-willed attitude that correlated well with her high confidence. Riley, who is a male black Lab, initially suffered from low confidence, leading her to learn that the best way to motivate him was through encouragement. Although these dogs quickly became a new source of happiness, the journey wasn’t always a walk in the park… quite literally. One of the hardest challenges she had to go through at the beginning was learning how to change her whole schedule and lifestyle to cater to the needs of the puppies. Learning how to be prepared if a puppy wakes up in the middle of the night to be let outside in order to avoid accidents, making sure the puppy is socialized and active, and keeping up with teaching commands on top of everything. Besides the general information given by the Regional Manager, Jessica felt completely unprepared for her first puppy, and its stubbornness didn’t help. By the time she was ready to welcome the second puppy, she made sure that everything would be set in place to make her feel at home. In any experience, there is growth and learning, and after her first round of puppy raising, she realized what she did well and what she wishes she could have done better. “Present Jessica” would tell “First Time Raiser Jessica” to find ways to prepare more before the time comes with activities like puppy sitting to learn certain behaviors or more classes to better know what to expect.
One of the biggest transitions going into puppy raising was adapting to life with the puppy and creating the mindset of “we” not “me.” While out in public, Jessica’s thoughts would drift to how the puppies would react in whatever environment she was in and how socializing them there would be beneficial. Puppy raising filled Jessica’s life with newfound excitement and happiness that she didn’t know she needed. Different dogs take different amounts of time to settle in and become comfortable. She explains, “With Missy, it took me a while, around four months, to understand her needs and establish a good working relationship with her.” She adds, “This included Missy understanding the rules of the house and fully learning that she did not dictate our relationship.” Jessica reflects further, “With Riley, it took a lot less time since I had gained experience from working with Missy and I had more confidence in myself as a raiser. Moreover, I now knew how to teach him that he couldn’t walk over me which made our bond stronger.”
Thanks to Guiding Eyes, Jessica has been given the opportunity to make countless memories that will last a lifetime. One experience that every puppy raiser has is dropping the puppy off for the training test. When describing the moment, Jessica says, “There are so many emotions going on: happiness for your dog’s next steps and having the chance to possibly change someone’s life, sadness for possible last moments with your puppy that you have had for over a year, curiosity about where your pup will end up, and so much more.” To those of us who never had the start-to-finish puppy raising experience, we will never be able to completely understand the feelings that come with this memory, but they are obviously strong, complicated, and unforgettable.
The future is bright for Jessica, Missy, Riley, and any other puppy that enters her home, including the black and tan German Shepherd she will begin raising in the near future. Jessica hopes to pursue a spot as a Regional Manager or a Guide Dog Mobility Instructor down the road, but she is certain that there will be more puppies in the future. Jessica is thankful for finding this life path and every person and puppy that has supported the process.