If you have enjoyed reading my blog and think you are ready to take on the challenge of dog training, I urge you to volunteer your time for The Seeing Eye.
According to its website, “The Seeing Eye is a philanthropic organization whose mission is to enhance the independence, dignity, and self-confidence of blind people through the use of Seeing Eye® dogs.” They breed and raise puppies to become seeing eye dogs to guide blind people as we as instruct blind people in the proper use of handling and caring for the dogs.
It all started in 1927 with Morris Frank, a blind gentleman who read an article about German Shepherds being trained as guide dogs for blind veterans of WWI. Morris traveled to Switzerland to meet Dorothy Harrison Eustis, who was training police dogs. He returned to New York City with his guide dog, Buddy, and navigated the streets before throngs of news reporters. The rest was history.
I caught up with members of The Seeing Eye in my hometown, Roseland, NJ to see what it was all about.
Families volunteer to foster the puppies from seven-weeks old until 15 months, teaching them all the basic commands to set the foundation for their formal training. They attend training sessions with representatives of The Seeing Eye, who teach the foster families how to properly train their pups. It is also an important opportunity for the puppies to socialize and learn from example.
“I’ve been training dogs for the Seeing Eye since ’81,” said Janet Keeler, Leader of the Essex County Puppy Club in NJ. “This is Maggie; she’s puppy number 54.”
Brendon Sweigart started volunteering with The Seeing Eye for his senior service project in high school, now more than three years ago. After training his dog Vanito, he knew he wanted to do it again, this time with the whole family.
“You go into it knowing you have to give them up and that help to a degree, but it still hits you hard,” said his father, Frank Sweigart. “But you hear people speak about how much it improves their lives.”
The family is looking forward to receiving their next puppy in the coming weeks.
“I wanted to set an example for my children,” said Angela Getz of Roseland. “I feel strongly about what [The Seeing Eye] stands for. I wanted to do this to help someone regain their independence.”
“Often when you donate, you don’t know where the money goes, but when you train a dog, you know it is going to directly improve someone’s life,” she added.
The families help the dogs through their first few months of puppyhood, teaching basic commands and behaviors. At six months, the dog receives its first formal evaluation and earns its Seeing Eye vest, which distinguishes him or her as a guide dog. At 14 months, they have to go back to The Seeing Eye for their formal training.
The program is so successful, that four out of five dogs make it through the program. If a dog does not make it through the program, the dog’s foster family has first dibs of buying him or her back as their pet. The dogs are in high demand because of their level of training.
“It is heartbreaking, but you know that going in,” said Kaite, a Seeing Eye Area Coordinator for Essex County. “But seeing them with their graduates helps make up for it.”
Learn more about The Seeing Eye: