Woman trains dogs for more than show

 In News & Events

Ben Loudon- Democrat and Chronicle – 11/01/2008

Yuri and BonnieEAST BLOOMFIELD — Bonnie Kelly owned two dogs for about 14 years. Since they passed on in 2004 and 2006, three different dogs have come and gone, but Kelly likes it that way.

Kelly rears puppies for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a nonprofit group that trains the dogs and gives them to visually impaired people to work as guide dogs.

Kelly and about 20 other volunteers in the area raise puppies from about eight weeks of age until they’re about 20 months old, teaching them basic obedience skills.

The dogs, bred at a Guiding Eyes facility in Patterson, Putnam County, also spend about four to six months with professional trainers at the group’s headquarters in Yorktown Heights in Westchester County before being placed with an partner.

Letting go of the dogs after spending more than a year together can be tough.

“It is not the most fun thing that we do, but just knowing that we have given mobility and freedom to people is rewarding,” Kelly says.

“And one of the great things about it is we get to meet the people that the dogs go to,” says Kelly, who lives on Stirnie Road.

Jake, the first dog she trained, went to a blind man in Philadelphia who works for FedEx and plays piano in a restaurant on weekend evenings.

During a visit with the man and his wife, who also is blind, Kelly went to the restaurant to watch the man perform and Jake was right there on stage with him.

During a break, when Jake led his new owner to the men’s room, they walked right by her.

“Jake acted like we didn’t even exist. He was doing his job,” she says.

Kelly is now training her third dog, Yuri, who will move on in January.

Cindy Chait of Chili, a coordinator for the Monroe County region of the puppy-raising program, said the dogs trained here could end up anywhere in the world. They need more volunteer trainers who don’t need to have any special skills.

The group provides training on how to work with the puppies. But volunteers need plenty of time to work with their puppy every day. The task might not be for everybody.

Even if you don’t have the time to devote to raising a puppy for 18 months, you can help by becoming a puppy sitter to watch the dogs when volunteers such as Kelly need a break.

Kelly, 65, a retired bookkeeper, and her husband, Jim, a machinist, owned two springer spaniels. Winston died in 2004 when he was 14; Genny died in 2006, also at 14.

After Winston died, they thought about getting a second dog but hesitated because they weren’t sure they would have 15 to 20 years to devote to a new pet.

So after she learned about Upstate Guide Dogs, which was based in East Bloomfield, she volunteered to help raise puppies. But when Jake, her first puppy, was 10 months old, Upstate shut down and she wound up rearing Jake for Guiding Eyes instead.

The dogs need lots of attention when they first arrive.

“The first couple of weeks you have to keep an eye on them 100 percent of the time so the puppies learn the rules,” Kelly says.

They teach the dogs basic obedience and they learn about 15 commands from volunteers such as Kelly.

With the professional trainers they eventually learn about 50 commands.

About 95 percent of the dogs in the program, including three Kelly has worked with, are yellow or black Labrador retrievers. But Kelly asked for a German shepherd dog next because she wants a challenge. In preparation, she took care of one for a week recently.

“And there is definitely a difference. I think it’s going to be more difficult to raise a German shepherd,” Kelly says.