Introducing our eight Seeing Eye Puppies

From Wolves to Guide Dogs

Download article as a Word document.

Since our retirement we have been volunteer puppy raisers for The Seeing Eye, the nation's oldest and largest provider of guide dogs. This article should not be considered an expert viewpoint, but it just reflects our own perspective after a few years of experience.

We have the dogs for a little over a year after which they return to Morristown, NJ and receive four months of formal training. Once the dogs have passed all the physical and training tests, it spends another month at The Seeing Eye headquarters adapting to the blind person with which it will be paired.

Our first dog, Venita, was a Lab/Golden mix that went to a lady in North Carolina. Pumpkin was our second dog, also a mix. She was placed with a man in New York State. Our third dog, TR, was a beautiful German Shepherd. After TR, came Betsy and Nina. We hope to continue this task as long as we are physically able. In some ways, the puppies keep us young, but in other ways they make us older!

Although people have other house pets, only one is commonly domesticated. Some might argue that cats are in the same category, but we have had both, and cats are never domesticated! Dogs belong to the family, but the family and everything else belong to a cat!

Dogs descended from wolves, which do not make good pets. Wolves are inherently pack animals. We hear the term, "lone wolf," but that is a rarity. Even in zoos, wolves are seldom kept alone. If you separate a pack animal from its pack, a personality change begins to take place. In extreme cases, an isolated pack animal will refuse to eat, get sick or even die, but dogs have adapted to humans over time. They are still pack animals by nature, which is why a dog gets excited when it sees another dog.

Dogs are very teachable, sociable and cooperative because of their need to belong. If dogs are neglected or mistreated, however, they can become vicious. In cities of some third world nations, roaming packs of wild dogs have become a serious problem.

A wolf pack is composed of an "alpha pair" and its offspring, consisting of anywhere from 6 to 15 wolves. The alpha male is the pack leader but there are also "beta wolves" which aid the leader in organizing and commanding the pack. If the alpha wolf weakens, is injured or dies, a beta wolf will assume the position of alpha wolf. A hierarchy also develops within the pack. The struggle for superiority begins in a litter as pups contend with one another in play. Wolves may gain superiority by means of their strength, their capabilities or due to their age and experience. Just as the litter can have a "runt," the pack may have an outcast. But all wolves cooperate with the alpha pair.

Some breeds of dogs make excellent sheep dogs because their herding instinct is strong. Herding is actually a tactic of hunting. Wolves surround their prey before attacking.

Like most other animals, dogs are guided almost entirely by instinct, and a dog's instinct tells it to seek its kind. If there is no other dog around, the dog looks for the next best company. You have perhaps heard stories and seen pictures of dogs that adopt kittens or other animals. Watch this clip of a dog and deer friendship

A wolf rarely barks and it is possible that dogs bark more because they are domesticated. They bark to get humans' attention, but growling and whining are the preferred methods of communicating with other dogs. A dog may whine when it wants or needs something. There are friendly growls and warning growls, but humans have difficulty distinguishing between them. Dogs yelp when they are hurting and puppy raisers also learn to emit a high-pitched yelp when a puppy uses its razor-sharp teeth where it shouldn't!

The Seeing Eye has its own breeding station and utmost care is given to the selection of breeders. Parent dogs are selected according to learning capability as much as their physical condition.

Each litter receives a letter of the alphabet and all puppy names begin with that letter. We often joke about some of the puppy names. "TR" is the international country code for Turkey, but he was a magnificent German Shepherd! By inserting the German word for "dogs" ("HUNDE") between those two letters, you get "THUNDER," which would seem more appropriate. But raisers don't name the dogs. Johnny Cash sang about "A Boy Named Sue" and we try to explain to people why our black dog was named "Pumpkin" and her yellow brother was named "Pilgrim." Another Golden Retriever was named "Angus!"

Persons wishing to raise a Seeing Eye puppy must attend a local club of puppy raisers for several months before they receive a puppy. Some of the best puppy raisers are young people. We have a teenager in our local club who has successfully raised 11 puppies! A number of puppy raisers have raised 25 or more puppies, and we met one lady who raised 75!

Puppy raisers for The Seeing Eye are all volunteers and receive no pay, but The Seeing Eye pays veterinarian costs and defrays the cost of food. All young dogs like to chew and can destroy articles of clothing, carpets and even furniture! Such expenses come out of our own pockets, so we are constantly watching and diverting their attention with appropriate toys. We keep a can of "Bitter Apple" handy to spray on chair and table legs. Dogs don't like the taste of the stuff.

Puppy raisers meet monthly in local club meetings where they share experiences with other raisers, get help with problems, practice obedience and learn new techniques. An area coordinator is always available when needed. When one raiser goes on vacation, another will "puppy sit." The dogs soon realize that we all belong to the "pack." We can trade off puppies and go through the commands with no problem because all abide by the same rules. Where else can you find young people and seniors working side-by-side and enjoying each other's company?

Clubs organize outings to ball games and other events where there are crowds and unusual noises. We have taken our dogs on ferry and steam train rides, to a live Christmas nativity, to Longwood Gardens and a Civil War Reenactment. We try to expose the dogs to as many situations as possible, taking them almost everywhere we go. They become familiar with shops, malls, parades, traffic and private homes. Some raisers take their dogs to church or college classes. The dog learns to lie quietly at the feet of its master in meetings, cars, trains and even on airplanes. Some airports sponsor practice boarding for puppy raiser clubs, including a body check of the dogs. Raisers give dogs experience on stairs and in elevators, but using an escalator is reserved for professional trainers at The Seeing Eye.

Most businesses and authorities are aware of the guide dog program and cooperate readily. We attempt to use common sense in all situations, requesting permission when in doubt. Because our puppies are not yet fully trained, restaurants, grocery stores and swimming beaches are off limits unless we receive special permission. There are also insurance and legal restrictions that we must abide by. Once the dogs are fully trained by The Seeing Eye and matched with a blind person, there are very few places where a guide dog may not go.

Puppy raisers also do public demonstrations in order to educate the public about service dogs. We visit schools, clubs and gatherings and also give demos in malls and at the fairground.

Some ordinary commands are different from those used by other dog-owners. When a puppy jumps up on people or furniture, the command is, "Off!" Instead of "Stay" we use the command, "Rest." The command, "Stay back!" is used to tell the dog that it can't go with us.

There is good reason for every rule even when it seems contrary to a dog's nature. The dog must learn "park time," eliminating on command when and where it is told to do so. A male dog must learn not to raise its leg or "mark territory."

When we give a command, we always say the dog's name to get its attention. This could also prevent a stranger from telling the dog to do something that might cause problems for a blind person.

The puppies we are raising have a unique and special job ahead of them. They are therefore raised differently from other dogs. A raiser gets the puppy at 7 weeks and it can already sit on command and is eager to learn. The Seeing Eye provides a comprehensive folder containing information, commands, tips and guidelines for raising the puppy.

The primary goal of education is "learning how to think" and not just absorbing knowledge. Most dogs are taught to obey commands, but guide dogs are taught to obey if itís okay. That is the difference between educating and training.

A guide dog normally follows commands, but strict obedience is not what we are looking for in a guide dog. They must be confident enough to disobey a command! The Seeing Eye calls this "intelligent disobedience."

This is quite contrary to most styles of dog training. If a Seeing Eye dog is commanded to go into a dangerous situation it must refuse to obey the command. If we are overly demanding and controlling, it will affect the dogs' ability to disregard a command when necessary.

Guide dogs learn to reason and watch for the unexpected. Already in the breeding station, workers suspend mobiles overhead to catch the puppy's attention. Our puppies are always on a leash when not in the house or yard. If they try to lead us through a narrow place or under a low hanging branch, we stop until they choose a path that we can also use. I once slipped and fell on our icy driveway. The puppy showed genuine concern and was always careful after that incident.

The dog will later have to figure a way around a barricaded sidewalk in a big city, or decide if itís safe to cross a street. A dog that is used to extremely strict obedience would stand and wait to be told what to do instead of finding a solution to the problem.

Most animal trainers use treats or food, but The Seeing Eye puppy raiser uses only patience and praise. When the puppy has difficulty understanding what it is to do, we allow it time to process what we want. When it obeys, even if not perfectly or by chance, we still give it praise. The puppies catch on quickly and become eager learners. Commands are seldom repeated once they are learned. If the dog doesn't respond immediately, the raiser waits patiently until it does. If a dog does something we don't like or picks up an item it shouldn't have, we utter a sharp, "aah aah!" If it is on a leash, we may also give it a quick tug. We may have to remove an object from the puppy's mouth, but physical punishment is not an option, nor is it necessary. Simply turning our back on the dog is sometimes sufficient correction.

A guide dog is not allowed to eat "people food." The dog lies quietly under the table when it's master eats. We can eat hamburgers in our car and the dog doesn't beg. This may seem cruel to many dog owners, but the guide dog will be permitted in restaurants and grocery stores, so this is an important rule. Dogs must learn to abide by rules even when no one is watching. No blind person would want a "counter surfer" or a dog that steals and hides shoes.

Our dogs are always on a leash when away from home. In public places they usually wear a scarf or, if over six months old, a vest. They must pass a test in order to get "vested." When we put The Seeing Eye scarf or vest on our dogs, they know that they are expected to be on their best behavior. They learn quickly to distinguish between work and play times.

Strangers who watch us walk our dogs sometimes ask us if we are taking the dog for a walk, or if the dog is taking us for a walk. It actually is taking us for a walk because that is what guide dogs do! Instead of the customary "heel" command, raisers teach the dog to "forward." The rear hips of the dog should be about even with the raiser's left side and the dog should have a steady pull on the leash. Our pups are taught to lead!

If the total cost of The Seeing Eye operations is divided by the number of successful matches, a Seeing Eye dog costs about $65,000! The blind person, however, pays only a symbolical fee of $150 for the first dog. That includes travel to TSE, room, board, and equipment.

About 70% of the dogs make it through the entire guide dog program. A few are released from the program for physical reasons, others for showing fear in certain situations or because they get too easily distracted. An OPD or "Out-of-Program Dog" often gets a "career change." We recently watched a demonstration of police dogs by the County Sheriff's Department. After showing what one of the dogs could do in sniffing out drugs or bombs, the K-9 officer proudly said, "This is our best dog, but he was a drop-out from The Seeing Eye program." Other dogs become therapy dogs or search and rescue dogs.

Because guide dogs are shown much kindness and gentleness, they don't get aggressive. They are often together with other dogs in the club and interact well. This creates a problem, however, in that service dogs are vulnerable to attacks by aggressive dogs. Some States have passed laws to protect working dogs. Owners of dogs that injure or kill a working dog may be fined. Unfortunately, there are States that still have no such law on their books.

It is important to note that puppy raisers are not trainers. Professional training takes place at The Seeing Eye headquarters in Morristown, New Jersey after the dog is approximately 12-14 months old. Training generally lasts four months, after which the raiser is invited to go to Morristown and watch the "Town Walk." This is a sort of "graduation exercise" in which we can watch the dog do all that it was trained to do. You can watch our first dog, "Venita's Town Walk" on YouTube.

Many people ask us how we can raise a puppy to adulthood only to part with the dog we have grown to love. There are usually a few tears when that day arrives, but not on the part of the dog. It has become so eager to learn, that it actually anticipates the next adventure. Whoever provides care, food and direction will be the next "pack leader."

We didn't raise our children to keep, so why should we be selfish with dogs? We are both over seventy and a dog could easily outlive us. We won't have to watch our dog get old and make "end-of-life" decisions for it. Raising puppies keeps us fit, so if we feel up to it, we can always raise another.

Ralph V. Harvey, January, 2013

For more information check these websites:
The Seeing Eye:
Cumberland County Seeing Eye Puppy Raisers: