Guiding Eyes for the Blind is looking for volunteers from Bath, Brunswick and Freeport to teach puppies basic skills to prepare them for training as guide dogs and their future companions.
Guiding Eyes is a New York-based non-profit organization that provides free guide dogs to people who are blind or have vision loss.
With 150 employees and over 1,700 volunteers, Guiding Eyes has trained over 10,000 dogs since 1954 at its 10-acre training facility in Yorktown, New York.
Maine regional coordinator Wendy Flynn said there are 20 puppy raisers in Maine and some have been volunteering for more than 30 years.
For eight years, Flynn raised a variety of puppies. Her first puppy, Dylan, became an Autism Healer 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.
Volunteers must attend four virtual classes and have their homes visited by Guiding Eyes to determine the safety and viability of the training.
“We want all walks of life because visually impaired people come from all walks of life,” Flynn said.
Once a volunteer is accepted, they attend eight weeks of classes to teach the basics using positive reinforcement.
“A big part of what we teach is connection,” Flynn said. “You want dogs to bond with people. You start out very small with commands like sit, stay, come, and how to walk on a leash without pulling. Positive reinforcement is the only way to approach puppies.
After 12 to 16 months, puppy breeders will send their dogs “In-For-Training” to test if the puppy is ready for the training center in New York. The initial test involves taking the dog to a large room full of distractions, such as toys, loud noises, and different terrain, to see if he can resist.
If the puppies pass their first training test, they will be paired with a professional trainer in New York City for six months before being paired with a visually impaired companion.
Flynn said dogs that don’t pass the first test can “change careers” and work for the state police, work as therapy dogs or be adopted. Puppy breeders have the option of adopting first, if their pup did not pass.
Having kept one of the puppies she raised, Flynn said it’s hard to say goodbye to those who continue in 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 can do something positive,” she said.
Nina Scribner, now 82, started breeding dogs for Guiding Eyes in 1985 with her first puppy, Sunshine. Scribner has bred over 23 dogs for the program.
“It’s a very exhilarating process,” Scribner said.
Work offers new possibilities for the visually impaired.
Born blind, literature teacher and Kennebunk resident Marc Silverstein said Guiding Eyes was an amazing organization to work with.
Silverstein was paired with his guide dog Rooney last May and said they became two halves of one whole. Before Rooney, Silverstein had become accustomed to using a cane.
“Rods can still miss things,” Silverstein said. “It’s completely different with a guide dog. Sometimes you can even feel them determining if there are a lot of obstacles in the way. It’s just wonderful.
He praised Guiding Eyes for the time and attention they devoted to the program. He said the organization was with him every step of the way, providing connections to those who raised Rooney and a direct phone number to speak to a trainer or vet at any time.
He encourages anyone in need of a guide dog to take the plunge.
“The rewards are countless,” Silverstein said. “If you think about it at all, it’s probably a sign and you won’t regret it.”
His wife Helen said she saw the remarkable change Rooney brought to her husband’s life.
“Just to see how happy Marc is. I think he may have felt more alone in his blindness than I thought and he clearly has a companion now. I just want puppy raisers to know that they are truly changing lives,” she said.
Leaving for summer vacation and writing his second novel, Marc Silverstein said Rooney came at the right time when they could bond and learn from each other.
“He actually straightens up when we put the harness on him,” Marc Silverstein said. “While it’s work, he likes it. When he’s finished working, he’ll take time to play or take a nap.
For more information email [email protected] or visit guidanceeyes.org