BY CHELSEA LAUREN CATTANO
Support organizations are constantly looking for ways to improve the quality of life for individuals who live with physical and mental disabilities and require assistance.
The largest guide school in the country, The Seeing Eye, located in Morristown, N.J., celebrated their 85th anniversary in 2014. To date, more than 16,000 guide dogs have allowed over 8,000 men and women to live their lives with a new level of mobility, safety and self-sufficiency.
Don MacGowan represented The Seeing Eye at an informational session held at the County College of Morris, Feb. 17.
The Seeing Eye breeds, raises, and trains dogs to become guide dogs. This way, each dog’s medical, performance, and intelligence history can be examined. Typical breeds that The Seeing Eye use are Labradors, Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds.
“Large dogs, which all of our dogs are, tend toward hip dysplasia, or arthritis of the hips,” MacGowan said. “A dog that develops dysplasia can be really unable to travel around, move, jump, walk, run, all of the things that dogs do, after two or three years. If we put all of the time and energy into training a dog to do what these dogs do and they were to become lame for that reason – that’s a wasted investment.”
Puppies spend their first eight weeks in the appropriately named “Puppy Playroom,” where they are introduced to different sounds and textures in order to acclimate them to the different environments they might be introduced to in their owner’s home and daily routines.
The idea is to expose these puppies to the majority of what they will experience in the world while they are still very young. This period is called the imprint period and it is utilized to it’s fullest extent at The Seeing Eye so that when the puppies are ready to go into training, they can focus on working with a human to keep him or her as safe as possible.
After eight weeks, the puppies go to the next stage of their growth and development. They go into puppy raising which is done through a network of almost 500 families who volunteer with The Seeing Eye.
Alison Deeb is a Morristown council member who is the founder of MARDOG, Inc., the initiative that is responsible for bringing dog parks to Morris County.
In the past, Deeb has rescued and fostered puppies, however, she recently became a puppy raiser with The Seeing Eye and is currently working with her first Seeing Eye puppy.
“Our dog Tim is 14 months old and he goes back for formal training soon, I got him at seven weeks,” Deeb said. “Now he’s fully grown.”
These puppies are raised to do a very specific and important job but that doesn’t mean that they don’t act like any puppy would.
According to Deeb, Tim loves to steal socks, specifically red socks, and he sings all of the time. His favorite music includes Presbyterian, classic Mozart and the William Tell Overture. The choir director at the church that the Deeb’s attend think that Tim has a lovely voice and that he stays in key.
“Tim goes back, probably in the next month for formal training,” Deeb said. “I’m definitely having mixed emotions on having to send him back but what I decided to do was make it a celebration. We’re having a parting party for him and it’s a combination farewell party and fundraiser and we’ve already received a few checks for The Seeing Eye. We have mixed emotions because you do get attached but at the same time, he’s getting bored and he wants to work.”
After puppy raising comes normal training. The dogs go back to The Seeing Eye and are trained for the things that make them guide dogs.
One of the first things that they learn is to become accustomed to a harness. The harness isn’t tight or uncomfortable and the dogs aren’t troubled by it other than just getting used to it. After they are comfortable withthe harness they are taught the very basic things.
The trainers use repetition, reinforcement and praise. They learn what to do at an intersection. Then they learn things like avoiding obstacles. All of the dogs are trained to lead around obstacles and look for another way. They are taught to look overhead which is not and intuitive thing for a dog to learn.
They are also taught through intelligence disobedience, which means that even if the owner says ‘forward’ to cross the street, if the dog sees something dangerous, he or she is going to alert the owner so that they stay safe. Things like hybrid cars and bicycles don’t make any noise so the dog is taught to notice these things.
A maximum of 24 potential owners come into The Seeing Eye at one time, as students. As they arrive, they are greeted by trainers who know all about the dogs and the visitors and they are responsible for pairing the two new partners up based on all of the information that the organization has collected.
Kathy Murray was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa when she was 25-years-old.
“With [Retinitis Pigmentosa] you slowly lose your eyesight,” Murray said. “It’s like a TV show where the screen closes up to a circle and then fades away.”
According to Murray, she wanted a Seeing Eye dog so that she could be more independent and confident. For her, there was a huge difference between using a cane and having a partner by her side who was able to get her to where she needed to go safely.
“Sure enough, as we go through our training, something amazing happens,” Murray said. “We start listening to each other, and we start working. If you’ve ever seen someone work with a cane, they tend to lean over more, kind of paying attention to their feet. But as you work with a dog and you learn to trust them, your shoulders go back, your head comes up and you have a confidence about you and it’s a wonderful, wonderful feeling.”
One of the most difficult things is for people to ignore a dog. When you see somebody working with a dog, it’s very important to not pay attention to them. The Seeing Eye dogs fulfill an important role in their owners lives and it is vital that they are not distracted.
Murray used the analogy of driving a car to further explain this point. If you are driving a car and you’re distracted you can potentially get into an accident. If someone is relying on a Seeing Eye dog and the dog is distracted, he or she may miss a command from their owner or not see a potential danger up ahead.
“I asked Kathy if she considered herself to be disabled and she said no,” MacGowan said. “To Kathy and to many others who were born blind, it’s like a detail. We see at The Seeing Eye all the time, people like this, some born blind, some who became blind during the course of their life who learn to work with this and they say ‘OK, that’s not all there is to life. Seeing is not all there is to life.’ The dogs help to make that very possible for them and it’s absolutely amazing to see.”