You might have seen them around campus, hanging out at the School of Veterinary Medicine, waiting in line for a check-up at Gannett or just out for a jog.
They are Hopi, a black and tan Labrador Retriever and her caretaker Rod Getchell Ph.D. ’02, a research support specialist at the Vet School.
The pair are a little different from your average dog and owner.
Hopi wears a blue coat that says, “Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Puppy-in-Training” and Getchell is only one of the people who will care for her throughout her lifetime.
Getchell is a volunteer for Guiding Eyes for The Blind, a non-profit organization based in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. that provides guide dogs for the visually impaired.
The organization relies on volunteers to raise puppies that are trained as guide dogs for future blind recipients. Puppy-raisers like Getchell take in a puppy and provide it with discipline and a safe environment.
“There is a screening process that includes an application then subsequent interviews. A lot of the time, there are repeat raisers,” explained Michelle Ley, a senior at Syracuse University who has worked at Guiding Eyes.
According to Sally Montgomery, another representative from Guiding Eyes, almost anyone is eligible to adopt a puppy.
Getchell received Hopi in April 2001 when she was eight weeks old. Hopi is the second puppy he has helped raise for Guiding Eyes.
“We went to at least three classes before we got our first dog,” Getchell said.
The puppies are specially bred at the Guiding Eyes center and stay there until they are around seven to eight weeks old, according to Ley.
“Raisers with a preference for a particular breed can choose from Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds and Golden Retrievers,” Montgomery added.
“You can put a request in for a color. I had asked for a yellow one,” Getchell said. His first puppy, also a Lab, was black.
Volunteers take the puppy along with them as they go through their daily routine and teach them obedience and socialization skills.
“No prior experience is necessary because Guiding Eyes provides raisers classes, a manual, videos and expert guidance,” Montgomery said.
Raisers must also attend evaluations in their region and some regions require them to take classes between those meetings.
“We talk about the things we need to teach the dogs,” Getchell said, about the classes, which he attended every two weeks along with other raisers from the Finger Lakes region.
Getchell taught Hopi basic commands like, “sit,” “down” and “stay.”
“You need to really praise the dog all of the time. That way, when the professionals train them, it’s a little easier.”
According to Getchell, an evaluator from Guiding Eyes comes every three months to assess the puppy’s progress.
“You write down how you think the dog is doing. Then they write down how they think the dog is doing. Then they give advice,” he said.
For the volunteers, raising a guide dog is divided into two major parts. First, because the puppy is younger, the focus is on socialization skills and less on obedience.
“Early on when you don’t want them to be afraid of people, you let people come up and pet them,” Getchell said. However, he added, “Initially, you can’t bring them everywhere.”
Later, the dog needs to gain more experience in different situations, so the raisers try to travel to different places to which the dog is not accustomed. Around six months, they must pass a test to receive the blue, “Guiding Eyes” coat.
“Then you can bring them anywhere. I would bring her to work at Cornell or I would take her jogging,” Getchell said. “They want you to bring them to three new places a week. The dog is always on a leash when it’s not in the house.”
Also, as a puppy gets older, the raiser must teach the dog to be less sociable and to discourage others from petting it. This is helpful because in later training, the dog must learn to pay attention to its owner and not become easily distracted.
Guiding Eyes provides medical care and other amenities for the puppies but raisers must pay for food and extra items, such as leashes and toys.
Over their year and a half together, Getchell and Hopi have traveled throughout central New York, have gone on hiking trips and attended excursions with other guide dog raisers.
There is a more difficult side to raising a Guiding Eyes puppy, however.
When they are around 15 to 18 months old, the dogs must return to Guiding Eyes, where professional trainers teach the dog how to work with the blind.
“We had to give her back last week,” Getchell said of Hopi.
In consolation, Getchell has just learned that Hopi passed all of her tests and will now work with the trainers to learn how to be a guide dog.
“These trainers teach each dog how to safely cross the street and avoid obstacles and dangers from traffic. They learn how to make right and left turns and walk in a straight line,” Montgomery said. “This process takes a minimum of four month’s training, where the dogs are taught to perform their daily functions indoors and out, in quiet environments, noisy environments and eventually in Manhattan, which is one of the biggest tests.”
After these tests are completed, the guide dogs are introduced to their new owner and the new team undergoes even more training.
Guiding Eyes selects the dog’s owner by taking into consideration the person’s walking pace, whether or not they live in a city and other factors.
Guide dogs are available to anyone 16 or older and legally blind. So far, Guiding Eyes has graduated over 5,000 person-dog pairs.
Everything from the new guide dog to the training is provided free of charge to anyone who qualifies.
In addition to its other credentials, Guiding Eyes for The Blind is the only guide dog school in the United States to offer a special program for people with other disabilities besides blindness.
“Each dog in this program undergoes several months of specialized one-on-one training to teach it how to work with its own person’s special needs when the time comes,” Montgomery said.
So why volunteer to raise and become attached to a puppy if you know that you must give it back only months later?
Getchell explained why he took in Hopi.
“My grandmother was blind the last 20 years of her life. I think that had a little impact. It was just something I have always wanted to do. It gives people freedom,” he said.
Archived article by Mackenzie Damon