Guiding Eyes for the Blind seeks volunteers from Bath, Brunswick and Freeport to teach puppies basic skills to prepare them for guide dog training and for their future companions.
Guiding Eyes is a New York-based nonprofit that provides seeing eye dogs at no charge for those who are blind or experiencing vision loss.
With 150 employees and over 1,700 volunteers, Guiding Eyes has trained over 10,000 dogs since 1954 at their 10-acre training facility located in Yorktown, New York.
Maine Regional Coordinator Wendy Flynn said there are 20 puppy raisers in Maine and some have been volunteering for over 30 years.
For eight years, Flynn has raised a variety of pups. Her first pup, Dylan, became an autistic healing dog. Her second pup, Orchid, became a bomb-sniffing dog. Her third pup, Zed, became a guide dog and number four, Sally, became a breeding dog for future guide dogs.
Voluteers must attend four virtual classes and have their home visited by Guiding Eyes to determine safety and training viability.
“We want all walks of life because people who are sight-impaired come from all walks of life,” said Flynn.
After a volunteer is accepted, they attend eight weeks of classes to teach the basic fundamentals using positive reinforcement.
“A big part of what we teach is connection,” Flynn said. “You want the dogs to make connections with the people. You start very small with commands like sit, stay, come and how to walk on a leash without pulling. Positive reinforcement is the only way we approach the puppies.”
After 12-16 months, puppy-raisers will send their dogs “In-For-Training” to test if the puppy is ready for the training center in New York. The initial test consists of bringing the dog into a large room full of distractions, such as toys, loud noises and different terrain, to see if they can resist.
If pups pass their first training test, they will be matched with a professional trainer in New York, for six months, before being matched with a seeing impaired companion.
Flynn said dogs who don’t pass the first test may “change careers” and work for the state police, work as therapy dogs or be adopted. Puppy raisers do get the option to adopt first, if their pup didn’t make the cut.
Having kept one of the pups she raised, Flynn said it is hard to say goodbye to the ones who continue on the program, but knows it’s for a greater good.
“Yes it’s hard to give them up, but it’s like sending your children out into the world. You get this amazing feeling, that you get to do something positive,” she said.
Nina Scribner, now 82, began raising dogs for Guiding Eyes in 1985 with her first pup, Sunshine. Scribner has raised over 23 dogs for the program.
“It’s a very exhilarating process,” said Scribner.
The work provides new opportunities for the seeing impairment.
Born blind, literary professor and Kennebunk resident Marc Silverstein said Guiding Eyes has been an incredible organization to work with.
Silverstein was paired with his guide dog Rooney this past May, and said they have become two halves of a whole. Before Rooney, Silverstein had grown accustomed to using a cane.
“Canes can still miss things,” said Silverstein. “It’s thoroughly different with a guide dog. Sometimes you can even feel them figuring out if there are a lot of obstructions in the road. It’s just wonderful.”
He praised Guiding Eyes for the time and care they put into the program. He said the organization was with him every step of the way, providing connections with the ones who raised Rooney, and a direct phone number to speak with a trainer or vet at any time.
He encourages anyone in need of a guide dog to take the plunge.
“The rewards are countless,” said Silverstein. “If you are thinking about it at all, it’s probably a sign and you won’t regret it.”
His wife Helen said she has seen the remarkable change that Rooney has made in her husband’s life.
“Just to see how happy Marc is. I think perhaps he felt more alone in his blindness than I realized and he clearly has a companion now. I just want puppy raisers to know that they really do change lives,” she said.
Off for summer vacation and writing his second novel, Marc Silverstein said Rooney arrived at the right time when they could bond and learn from each other.
“He actually really perks up when we put the harness on him,” Marc Silverstein said. “While it is work, he enjoys it. When he’s through with work he will take some play time or take a nap.”
For more information email [email protected] or visit guidingeyes.org