Cornellians Train Future Guide Dogs

November 20, 2009 2:17 am0 comments
Andrew Boryga

Isys Johnson ’11 often finds herself in the company of her four-legged friend Jack, a 10-month-old German Shepherd. Johnson’s most recent sidekick, Jack accompanies her to lectures in the School of Hotel Administration, to dining halls and on runs around campus.
While dogs are not allowed in dining halls, classes or most dorms at Cornell, Jack’s blue vest, which reads “Guide Dog in Training,” gains him entry into buildings campus-wide.
Jack is one of 16 dogs that belong to a local chapter of Guiding Eyes For the Blind, a non-for-profit guide dog school.
For over 50 years, the school has been helping visually impaired men and women travel safely by providing them with trained guide dogs. Johnson began volunteering with Guiding Eyes the spring of her freshman year, the first Cornell student to do so, and has since been followed by three others.
Guiding Eyes breeds their dogs themselves, raising them for two months and teaching them basic skills such as sitting. After two months, dogs are given to “raisers” who are responsible for them for 18 months.[img_assist|nid=39909|title=Lending a helping paw|desc=Isys Johnson ’11, left, shows off Jack, a future guide dog she is helping to train him as part of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a non-for-profit guide dog school.|link=node|align=left|width=336|height=275]
In addition to tending to the basic needs of the dogs, raisers are also responsible for teaching skills a guide dog would need.
Jean Snow, a fellow volunteer and local resident, raised Jack and taught him awareness, social skills and obedience. To train Jack, Snow walked him near traffic, forced him to interact with other dogs and practiced basic guide dog positions.
According to Snow, the hardest part of dog-raising is actually becoming too attached to the dogs. Volunteers like Johnson alleviate the attachment by taking care of dogs for short stints, giving raisers a break and dogs a new face to interact with.
As part of a large group of volunteers Guiding Eyes relies on, Johnson assists the socialization of the dogs by giving them new places and people to interact with. In Jack’s case, those places have included central campus dining halls and corridors of Balch Hall.
Johnson is an R.A. in Balch and frequently takes Jack — or any other dog she sits for — along on her rounds when on call. “Everyone loves him and stops to pet him, which makes my job a lot longer,” Johnson said.
As a volunteer, Johnson attends weekly meetings at the Veterinary School of Medicine, where raisers bring their dogs to be cared for by volunteers for two to four days.
To be entrusted with a dog a volunteer must go through a 6-hour “Pre-Puppy Placement” class which covers an overview of the Guiding Eyes raising philosophy that focuses on yielding successful, confident guide dogs, according to Russ Hollier, regional director for Guiding Eyes.
Confidence is the biggest factor in determining whether a dog is adequate enough to become a guide dog, according to Hollier, which is why at the conclusion of 18 months with a raiser, dogs are returned to Guiding Eyes and undergo an “In-For Training Test” to ensure they are prepared to become guide dogs.
“The test is designed to assess the dogs’ confidence around novel items and experiences, as well as how well the dog is able to focus and attend to a person while other distractions are occurring,” Hollier said.
One test measures dogs’ ability to attend to a person in the midst of distractions such as playing fetch. Another measure tests a dog’s confidence while walking on unusual surfaces such as bubble wrap or metal.
The results of these tests coupled with a personality survey raisers are required to fill out determine whether a dog will graduate out of the program or not.
“Confident, well-focused and resilient dogs stand out,” Hollier said.
The program has a 60 percent graduation rate, and dogs that do not make the cut either become police dogs or are given to their raiser permanently, as was the case with Jean Snow.
“I got very attached to my first dog, and I shed tears when I dropped her off,” Snow said; “While I wanted her to make it, a part of me didn’t because I wanted to keep her. In the end it worked out fine.”