What's it like… Raising guide dogs for the blind

 In News & Events

Frederick News-Post – 02/03/2009

Originally published January 23, 2009 By Ron Cassie

Janelle and O'RourkeJanelle Little, now a junior at Stevenson University in Baltimore, had already completed enough community service hours to graduate from St. John’s Catholic Prep when a teacher one day began suggesting ways students could fulfill their service requirement.

“When I heard her say ‘puppies,’ my ears immediately tuned in,” Little recalled with a laugh. “She gave me a website called ‘volunteermatch.org’ where Guiding Eyes for the Blind had an advertisement. I had completed my community service, but I still wanted to do it anyway.”

Since that moment in a high school classroom, Little has raised two Labrador retrievers who have been paired with blind partners, Brian Moore, of Toronto, Canada, and a man named Pawel Wdowik in Pruszk, Poland.

The 20-year-old Walkersville native now is helping raise a third Lab, O’Rourke, who will eventually be placed with a blind partner as well.

Moore, a computer consultant, takes Arizona, the first Lab pup Little raised, on his daily subway commute to work. Wdowik, director of the University of Warsaw’s Office for Persons with Disabilities, is accompanied by his pal, Ferd, to work and around town.

Even with professional jobs and full lives, Little said having a guide dog is a transformative experience for the blind.

“It’s so great to hear people talk about what having a dog means to them,” she said. “Pawel had a dog before, but after he was retired, he said his life was less carefree than with his guide dog. He felt less safe, and he missed having a companion.”

Little contacted Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded in 1956, toward the end of her senior year at St. John’s. She began raising Arizona, then 8 weeks old.

Over the past 50 years, Guiding Eyes, based in Yorktown, N.Y., has graduated more than 7,000 guide dog teams at no cost to their owners.

Puppy raisers like Little range in age from teenagers to senior citizens. They typically work with the well-bred Labs until they are 11Ú2 years old, attending local, one- hour weekly classes to help with the process. In Frederick, those classes are held at the Frederick Youth Center on Burck Street.

At 18 months, the dogs are returned to Guiding Eyes in Yorktown for more rigorous, professional training and eventually paired with a partner.

“The raiser builds a relationship with the dog, building trust and confidence, which must start at a very, very young age,” said Linda Damato with Guiding Eyes for the Blind. As pups, the dogs are taught basic commands — sit, lie down, stay – and “taught not to go counter surfing and to stay off the furniture,” Damato said.

Socializing the dogs to human beings, other animals, as well as the myriad sounds, surfaces and situations they will encounter in the outside world is crucial. That is why the dogs can’t be raised in a kennel — and why volunteer raisers serve a critical function.

Raisers do not use choke collars and do not say “no” to the dogs. High quality food is used to re-inforce correct behavior.

“Everything we do is positive,” Little said. “The training focuses on the relationship, kind of preparing them for the formal training, and getting them excited about that.”

The idea, Little said, is that by focusing on responsibilities and positive rewards, a dog will respond appropriately because it also enjoys the benefits of a trusting relationship — not because it fears negative consequences.

“It’s a relatively new approach and it really works,” Little said. “Although I’ve been trying on my boyfriend,” she joked. “And it hasn’t worked with him, yet.”

Over the months the pups live with their raisers, they are continually exposed to new experiences. They travel in cars, trains and boats, and learn to navigate curbs, steps, escalators, revolving doors, manhole covers and metal grates with their paws.

They become accustomed to children crying or pulling their tails, as well as to rain, mud, sirens, whistles and loud music, and learn not be distracted by any of it.

At a year old, every dog is evaluated by Guiding Eyes, and if they pass the test, as most do, they receive an official guide dog vest, which means they can begin going into places like malls, restaurants, and movie theaters.

“They can’t do it until they’ve earned it,” Little said “I love it when the dog earns the vest — it’s so much fun then.

“Theaters can be challenging,” she added, chuckling again. “There is so much popcorn on the floors, it’s hard for them to resist.”

Puppy raisers do not teach the dogs to cross streets. That is done during their formal guide dog training in New York, and takes place in Manhattan.

Raisers naturally fall in love with the dogs in their care, Damato said, and they often struggle letting them go. Little, however, said that has not been an issue for her.

“They’re being raised for a higher purpose, and I realize that and I’m happy when they go off to the job they’ve been trained for. They’re going to be working and that makes them happy, too.”

She said she is able to remain in touch with Arizona and Ferd, via e-mail with their adult partners.

“Brian Moore said that when people see him with a cane, they see a blind person,” she said. “When he’s with Arizona they see the dog first, and that draws affection and enthusiasm from people, and then more people open up to him as a person.

“To know that you’ve sort of played a role in helping someone gain independence, something that has changed someone’s life so much, is an incredible feeling.”