The National Eye Institute estimates that one million Americans were legally blind in 2015 and that number is expected to increase. According to the nonprofit organization Guiding Eyes for the Blind, every year in the United States, another 75,000 people will become blind or visually impaired. Although there are no precise statistics, they estimate that about two percent of all people who are blind or visually impaired work with guide dogs, with about 10,000 guide dog teams currently working in the U.S.
Guiding Eyes for the Blind was founded in 1954 with the mission of connecting people with vision loss to well-trained guide dogs that can make a difference in their lives. A dozen years later, they established their Canine Development Center to help make that happen by “purpose breeding” dogs with the health and temperament best suited for guide work. More than 500 puppies are born annually, and Guiding Eyes states that over half of these puppies will go on to become guide dogs, service dogs or part of its breeding program.
But how do puppies become guide dogs?
For at least three puppies, the first steps of their journey brought them right here to North Granby and the home of long-time residents Tony and Anne Cappelli and their daughters Angela and Lizzy.
As Tony explains, when 19-year-old Angela was still a high school sophomore, they were looking for a service project that they could do together—one that would help to teach Angela responsibility. An article in the Granby Drummer led them to an open house being held by Guiding Eyes at the First Congregational Church of Granby.
“We were really made to feel welcome, so we decided to do it,” Tony said. Once the pair completed the required preparation training, they brought home Persia. She was the first black Labrador puppy the family raised.
Guiding Eyes has about 500 volunteer puppy raisers like the Cappellis. Raisers are expected to provide teaching and socialization for their wards for about 12-16 months, then the dogs are brought back and given a rigorous “In For Training” (IFT) evaluation to decide if they will be accepted into the next stage of the training program.
Persia went on to pass her IFT evaluation and was accepted into the guide dog training program, eventually graduating and being placed before later being diagnosed with diabetes insipidus. Although Persia had to be removed from service, Tony said she was happily adopted by her former trainer at Guiding Eyes.
Like nearly 70 percent of Guiding Eyes’ puppy raisers, the Cappellis decided to do it again. A few months after Persia’s graduation, another black Labrador puppy came to live with the Cappellis. Her name was Bette.
“I saw a lot of people that had guide dogs and I saw all the good that they can do,” Tony said about the family’s decision to take in another puppy.
Having a guide dog can open a blind or visually impaired person up to having a freer, faster and smoother experience out in the world, as well as offering companionship. For the Cappellis, this has extra importance because Lizzy, 16, is legally blind and may one day apply to have a guide dog herself.
According to Guiding Eyes, those who can potentially benefit from being partnered with a guide dog are provided one at no cost. To do this, Guiding Eyes is dependent on both financial support from the public and the dedication of more than 1,400 volunteers.
The Cappellis’ third, and most recent puppy was Elsie. She was the last of the litter that was born to their previous puppy Bette, who was taken in as a breeding mom when the Cappellis returned her to Guiding Eyes for her IFT evaluation.
On May 15, Elsie returned to take her IFT evaluation and was accepted into the guide dog training program. It can take another 6-12 months of formal training with a professional instructor before it’s decided if she will be placed as a guide dog or in other service work. If it is decided a dog is not best suited for this career, they may be released from the program to become a loved pet.
Giving back the puppy you’ve been raising is both exciting and difficult. They become a part of the family and, as Lizzy said, “They’re just fun to hang out with and cuddle with.”
“Elsie was really hard. We felt sad when we dropped her off,” Tony added. “Elsie was our favorite puppy by far. She was just super friendly.”
Even the family’s 13-year-old per poodle, Sanibel, gets in on the puppy raising, playing with the puppies by stomping her feet while the pups run rings around her. “She gets a new lease on life with each new puppy,” Tony said.
Of course, raising a puppy is a big investment of time. Puppy raisers are responsible for teaching their puppies house manners like staying off the furniture. People food is a big no-no and they need to learn basic commands like stay, sit and heel. Puppies need to be crate trained, accepting the idea of wearing a harness and they also learn to walk on the left, slightly ahead but never pulling on their leash.
They also need to be fed every few hours, get daily exercise by walking up to two miles a day and learn good socialization skills. Puppies need to be taken out into the community at least three times a week.
“You get attention whenever you take the puppy out,” Tony said. “You always meet someone who wants to tell you a story.”
It’s a lot of work for the dogs as well. They have to learn to be obedient and patient, but they also need to learn what is called “intelligent disobedience.” Guide dogs need to be able to think and decide if it is safe to follow the direction “to go” that they’ve been given by their handler.
Since guide dogs do not know where their handler wants to go or the way to get there, it is not enough to just be visually impaired when applying to have a guide dog. Applicants also need to have good orientation mobility, be able to adequately care for their dog, complete the necessary training and accept that Guiding Eyes retains ownership of the dog and will do follow-up assessments throughout the lifetime of the placement to ensure that it is working to everyone’s advantage.
As for the Cappellis, they are definitely considering raising another puppy, although they may wait awhile to make sure that Elsie is on her way to a placement first. Their enthusiasm for the experience is clear and summed-up when Tony mentions a t-shirt he saw recently. It read:
“Inside every service dog beats the heart of a puppy raiser.”
If you would like to find out more about Guiding Eyes for the Blind, including how to become a puppy raiser, how to make a donation or how to apply to adopt retired or released guide dogs, you can visit their website: guidingeyes.org.
Puppy raising classes are held on Monday evenings in either Granby or Avon for the northern Connecticut region. For more details contact either:
Lillian Busse, Region Coordinator: 860-618-0477 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Maureen Hollis, Regional Manager: 845-490-0143 or email@example.com