by Nicole Reitz
The Great Bear Recreation Area, located between Fulton and Phoenix on Route 57, was the site for a recent meeting of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, which is part of an international federation of guiding dog schools that focuses on relationship-centered training.
Representative and trainer Joy Hawksby met volunteers Mary Oonk and Cindy Swift last week at Great Bear for a pack walk.
A pack walks allow dogs to be with other dogs as well as an opportunity to learn from each other. Hawksby believes strongly in letting dogs be dogs and giving puppies time and space to figure things out on their own.
“Great Bear is fabulous,” she said. “We can do recalls, run into horses and meet other dogs in all shapes and sizes, which the puppies are going to run across in their lives as a guide.”
“It’s so much work, its a good thing their cute,” quipped Swift. Swift, a resident of Mexico, has raised 20 puppies in the Guiding Eyes for the Blind program. Swift and her husband got involved with the program in 1996 and are currently raising “Taft” and “Roxana,” a four-month-old German Shepherd.
Before raisers are even given a puppy, volunteers, called puppy starters or early socializers, handle the puppies, introduce them to different noises and sounds, and keep up with their three feedings daily.
The puppies are given a test, which is a marker as to whether the pup should be placed with a raiser.
Puppy raisers, like Swift and Oonk, are given a labrador or German shepherd from the Guiding Eyes breeding program and are expected to teach the dogs obedience, house manners and appropriate behavior in the household.
Raisers also socialize their puppies with people and expose them to new experiences, the post office or their kids soccer game.
Puppies stay with their trainers for 16 to 18 months. During this duration, the raisers will sometimes switch puppies for a week or so with another volunteer, so that the dog has a chance to work with another raiser. The idea is to get a dog comfortable with a lot of different people.
After 18 months, the puppies are released from the home for six months or more of formal training. The puppies are taught to be a guide dog through positive reinforcement, praise and treats.
One of the first things a guide dog is taught is how to target a curb, learning from practice that the safest and shortest distance between one curb and another is a straight line. The dogs also learn to look for overheads and work around traffic.
A dog is placed with a visually impaired person around the age of two. Dogs are matched with graduates based on the person’s pace and lifestyle, among other factors.