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Boot camp for dogs
Guiding Eyes trainers prepare smart, rebellious puppies to help the visually impaired
By VICTOR GRETO, The News Journal
WILMINGTON — Brie doesn’t look like your stereotypical Seeing Eye dog.
And that’s not only because she isn’t a German shepherd, which was the breed of dog first widely used in that role.
The 7-month-old Labrador retriever, whose pale yellow coat resembles the color of the French soft cheese, seems too playful and full of energy, even rebellious.
But those are some of the ingredients for a great guide dog, and she’s being trained in the basics by Bob Porter, regional coordinator for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a nonprofit charitable organization based in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. It provides trained guide dogs for the visually impaired throughout the U.S. and in 12 foreign countries.
“It’s actually like training any pet in the beginning,” Porter said one recent sunny morning from the dining room table of his home. “I teach her to be a good citizen out in public.”
Porter actually performs the first part of an extended training process that takes a full two years. He gets the dog at 8-12 weeks of age. His part may take up to 18 months.
“I teach them uniform commands, like to sit and stand, and introduce them to as many different situations as we can to build their confidence,” Porter said.
That includes getting on and off forms of mass transportation, walking them along busy streets and on different types of surfaces, getting them used to the noise of fire trucks and motorcycles and training them to be patient or docile at the table.
After Porter’s time is done, the dog then returns to the organization’s New York headquarters for six months of specialized training with an animal behaviorist.
There, the dogs are brought into subway systems, elevators, escalators “and experience more stressful conditions,” Porter said.
After the training, the dog is teamed with a person, who trains with the dog for 26 days before being allowed to take it home.
Guiding Eyes for the Blind graduates up to 150 dogs per year, says Janine Haughney, resource director. According to a decade-old estimate, nearly 10,000 people use guide dogs across the country.
It costs about $40,000 to train a dog all the way through. The company, however, offers the dogs free of charge for those who go through an application process (which can be completed at www.guidingeyes.org).
The organization survives through donations and grants, said Jeannie Fleming-Gifford, a Guiding Eyes for the Blind publicity coordinator.
Liz Bottner, 22, a student at the University of Delaware, has gotten two dogs from Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Her first dog, Katerina, “decided to be a pet after a year,” she said, so she had to return her.
Her second dog, Olivia, has led her along campus streets since 2004.
“I’ve figured I have two million daily responsibilities,” Bottner said. “The dog takes one million and I take the other million. We work together.”
The development of schools that trained both dogs and visually-impaired people to work together began in Europe shortly after World War I to aid returning veterans. The first U.S. school opened in 1929 in Morristown, N.J.
In the beginning, most of the dogs were German shepherds, Europe’s favorite breed of guard dog.
Now, 85 percent of them are Labrador retrievers, although German shepherds, golden retrievers and even collies are used.
The reason is simple, Porter said.
“Labs are very smart and a little rebellious, and that’s what you need in a guide dog,” he said.
If, in Bottner’s first case with Katerina, she proved too rebellious, with Olivia, she has powerfully bonded.
“The bond with Olivia is cemented,” she said. “I’m with her 24 hours a day, seven days a week. She goes everywhere with me.”
Yes, the dog helps her maneuver around obstacles, “will stop at curbs and stairs, and take you around a trash can,” Bottner said.
But one of the greatest benefits to having the dog is a social one.
“With a dog, people are more approachable,” she said. “Before, they wouldn’t even come up to me. It’s an icebreaker.”
But that also invites a greater challenge.
“People have weird expectations of the dog that I have to change,” Bottner said.
For instance, some think the dogs can recognize the color of street lights — they’re color blind — or think that once the dog knows the name of a supermarket and Bottner tells the dog, the dog magically will lead her to it.