Thursday, March 15, 2007

Guiding Eyes for the Blind

The interview below is featured in our new newsletter issue, coming out later today! Enjoy...

Guiding Eyes for the Blind, located in Yorktown Heights, NY has become one of the foremost guide dog schools in the world, graduating more than 6,000 guide dog teams. The not-for-profit organization provides professionally trained dogs, training and lifetime support services to students free of charge with funds raised solely through the generosity of individuals, corporations, foundations and civic organizations. Linda Damato, Regional Marketing Manager for Guiding Eyes, answered some of our questions about guide dogs and their training.

When were dogs first trained to assist visually impaired people? There is some evidence suggesting a relationship between dogs and blind people dating back to the first century, found on a mural buried in the Roman ruins. Again during the Middle Ages, a wooden plaque details a dog leading a blind man. In 1780, a hospital for the blind in Paris attempted to train dogs to aid the sight impaired. In 1819, an Institute for the Education of the Blind in Vienna mentioned using dogs to assist the blind. Then, in 1847, Jakob Birrer wrote about his experiences of being guided by a dog he trained himself. The first modern guide dog training schools were established during the First World War, to enhance the mobility of returning veterans who were blinded in combat, often by poison gas.

Guiding Eyes for the Blind graduated its first guide dog team in 1956. Since that time, we have graduated more than 6,000 guide dog teams. Our graduates have come from 48 states and 12 countries. Their experiences at the school and with our guide dogs have earned us a reputation as one of the foremost guide dog schools in the world.

Why are certain breeds of dogs best for guide dog training? Most of our puppies are Labrador Retrievers, although a few Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds are trained. The dogs have been selectively bred to enhance their traits of self-confidence, serene disposition, willingness to work, ability to take responsibility, good health, intelligence and initiative. They are truly remarkable dogs.

Do the dogs "enjoy" their training and work? Guide dogs enjoy their work immensely, and they get a lot of satisfaction from a job well done, though there is no room for typical dog fun during the work day. Even when the handler doesn't need assistance, a guide dog on the job is trained to ignore distractions and keep still. This is because a guide dog must be able to come to the handler's workplace or be in public places without creating a disturbance.

Do visually impaired people develop a special relationship with their canine friends? This question is best answered by reading a quote from one of our recent graduates...“I am so thankful for having Farrell in my life. Not only is she my guide dog but, she is my best friend. She has been with me and comforted me through some very trying times. Also, she has helped me grow in my personal life, making it possible for me to make some difficult decisions throughout the past two years we've been together. Her work is superb. And like me, she takes her work very seriously. Also, like me, when she is not working, she is a clown; always making me laugh even when I'm not in the mood to laugh. I am thankful for Guiding Eyes and for Farrell's puppy raisers who did such a great job raising such a special dog. Thank you to all of the puppy raisers. You are really making a difference in people's lives. Keep up the great work. And last but certainly not least, thank you Farrell for being such a great worker and for being the best friend I could ever ask for.”

At what age are the dogs "retired," and what happens to them then? When our Guide Dogs retire they may become a family pet of the blind person. If the person cannot manage two dogs, Guiding Eyes for the Blind will find a new home for the retired guide dog. Working as a guide dog requires peak physical and mental shape, so guide dogs typically retire just before they enter old age. Retirement is usually at age eight or 10; but some work for a little longer. A few dogs are still working at age 13! Giving a retired guide dog a loving home is also an excellent way to help reward these amazing animals for a lifetime of hard, important work.

How can interested people learn more about the puppy raising volunteer program? They can go to our website,, and click on the Volunteer Pages. From there, click on Puppy Raising and find a wealth of information about the Guiding Eyes for the Blind Puppy Raising Program. Filling in the Application for Puppy Raising actually begins the process. An applicant will attend Pre-Placement classes held locally and that's where they get their individual questions answered and have an opportunity to work with a puppy. Our puppy raisers will receive great support, make new friends and attend fun classes ~ there are many rewards that come from raising a future guide dog! No previous puppy raising experience is necessary!

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