Lending a guiding hand

Volunteers who train service dogs say it's a tough but rewarding job


When Annapolis resident JoAnn Holmes was growing up on Long Island, she saw a segment on TV about raising guide dogs. Even at 7 years old, she said, she knew it was something she wanted to do.

Throughout her life, she surrounded herself with cats and dogs. Dobermans and dachshunds were her favorites, but it wasn't until 2001, when she retired from the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, that she decided it was time to become a volunteer puppy "raiser" for Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

After a series of training sessions, Holmes, 60, welcomed her first Guiding Eyes puppy: an 8-week-old yellow Lab named Quasar.

Although she knew her time with Quasar would be short, and she realized the time she devoted to his training would benefit a sight-impaired person, saying goodbye was hard for Holmes, who moved to Annapolis in 2000.

In January, 14 months after he came to live with Holmes, Quasar was returned to the Guiding Eyes training center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., where he was tested and qualified to continue training: six months of intensive in-harness training, plus another month of training and bonding with his new sight-impaired partner. Partners can live in the U.S., Canada, Europe or the Middle East.

Puppies are matched to their new partners according to personality, size and energy level. Quasar's new partner is a 17-year-old New Hampshire high school student who is blind.

"I was so proud of Quasar and, yet, so sad," said Holmes, who attended his graduation in July. "My first reaction was, `I'm not going to do this again.' It hurt too much."

But missing Quasar so much changed her mind. Her second Guiding Eyes puppy, a German shepherd named Yani, arrived in May.

Eighty percent of the puppies that pass the two major tests, one at 8 weeks and another at 14 months, complete the training and graduate. Guiding Eyes places about 150 dogs with partners each year, said Pat Clark, a resident of Glenn Dale in Prince George's County who is a puppy evaluator for Guiding Eyes.

The most important quality Guiding Eyes looks for in a potential raiser is commitment, Clark said. Raisers take an 8-week-old puppy and dedicate more than a year to its rearing. That's a lot of standing in the backyard in foul weather and fair, teaching the puppy to relieve itself on command.

"Our job is to find the JoAnns of the world," Clark said. "People are willing to donate $25, but to donate 14 months of their life is difficult."

Shortly after retiring as a lieutenant colonel from the Army nine years ago, Clark, 59, began raising her first of five Guiding Eyes puppies. In addition to her most recent puppy, a yellow Lab named Floyd who graduated as a full-fledged guide dog in September, Clark shares her home with Lamont, her third puppy, now grown and retired, who stays busy as a Guiding Eyes ambassador to school and scout groups. During his career, the black Labrador took his blind partner from New Jersey into Manhattan every day on the train.

"You can't force dogs to work," Clark said. "They have to want it.

Raising a guide dog requires time and attention.

"You have to be able to take a puppy out every two hours" for potty training, Clark said.

Dogs in training may legally go anywhere, Clark said. People with jobs as diverse as teaching and working for the federal government are among raisers who take their puppies to work.

"We ask that the primary raiser be at least 13 years old, in that case, with an adult that comes to class," Clark said. "When the parent is the primary, then a younger child, a 10-year-old, can work with it."

Raisers are responsible for their puppies' food, toys and leashes. Guiding Eyes provides all veterinary care and kennels. Raisers are encouraged to seek sponsors to help with the cost of the puppies' food, which is tax-deductible, Clark said.

Guiding Eyes puppies are bred for robust health, intelligence and adaptability. Ninety percent of the dogs are Labrador retrievers, 5 percent are German shepherds and 5 percent are golden retrievers. They must learn acceptable behavior in public, such as ignoring other dogs or a child with an ice cream cone, and proper house manners, such as not jumping on the furniture or stealing food from the kitchen counter.

A Guiding Eyes puppy must be exposed to as many sights, sounds and experiences as possible, Holmes said. He must be able to handle being touched by strangers and to ignore the shrill sounds of ambulances and fire trucks. He must feel comfortable walking on every surface, from carpeting to slippery floors, from mud to gravel, and be able to maneuver difficult spaces with tight squeezes and scary heights.

Puppies are subjected to situations that would upset an average dog: lots of handling, umbrellas opening in their faces, being dressed in clothes and the sound of gunfire. All these experiences prepare the puppy to handle "anything out of the ordinary," Clark said.

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