James Rada, Jr.
Five young Labrador retrievers bounded into the Frederick Youth Center on a cold Thursday night, pulling their trainers behind them. Still puppies, they wanted to romp, play, and explore. They slid on the wooden floor, as they strained their leashes to visit nearby people or other puppies.
This wasn’t a play-date for them, though. Pretty soon, they were calmed down and one-by-one they were asked to show their mastery of basic commands. They had to go to their rug and lay down on command and come to their trainer on command. They were also walked around the room to experience different smells and tactile sensations.
These puppies are destined for bigger things than chasing squirrels around a yard. They are only puppies now, but in a couple of years they will help blind people lead independent lives. These puppies are part of the Guiding Eyes For The Blind Program.
“Our job is to raise the puppies to be sent to New York, where they can be trained to be guide dogs,” said Beth Propps of Emmitsburg.
She and her family have raised three dogs, from approximately eight weeks old until they are eighteen months old. Propps first got involved with the program in 2009, when she saw a newspaper ad asking for volunteers.
“We do miss the puppies when they leave—they’re all such characters—but we know going in we’re only going to have them for a short time,” Propps said.
Guiding Eyes has been around since 1954, so they have developed a program based on seeing what has worked in the past. Since all of the puppies that the organization trains each year can’t be trained in New York, where the Guiding Eyes headquarters is, local organizations like Guiding Eyes Catoctin have been set up to handle the pre-training of puppies.
“They tell you exactly what needs to be done each day,” Propps said. “Then the puppies are evaluated weekly to see how they are doing.”
The pre-training involves things that are good for every dog to know. House manners. Obey voice commands. Control their youthful exuberance. The local families also make sure to expose the dogs to a variety of stimuli, such as train noises, crowds, and farm animals.
Not all dogs are cut out to be guide dogs, though. When the dogs are eighteen months old, they are evaluated for the New York program, and again upon completion of the program. Those dogs that don’t make the cut are often used as companions for autistic children or police dogs to be trained to sniff out drugs or bombs. A few might be used in a Guiding Eyes breeding program. If none of those options work, then the dog is adopted out to a loving family.
Guiding Eyes depends on volunteer puppy raisers to provide the love, support, and direction the puppies need to prepare them for formal training as future guide dogs. No prior experience is necessary, as Guiding Eyes provides training and support for raisers; raisers attend local classes and puppy evaluations.
For more information or if you are interested in becoming a volunteer puppy raiser or simply want to learn more, take a look at these websites: Guiding Eyes Catoctin: guidingeyescatoctin.org and Guiding Eyes For the Blind: guidingeyes.org.
Puppy-in-training, Endora, is shown with her raiser, Susan Allen.
Photo by James Rada, Jr.