Wonder Dogs

At Seeing Eye, it takes a special animal to make the grade.

Photo by Marc Steiner/Agency New Jersey.
The Seeing Eye is a guide dog service based in Morristown.
Photo by Marc Steiner/Agency New Jersey.

The woman was walking at a measured pace along a Morristown sidewalk, a guide dog moving with her, tethered by a harness in her left hand.

A car suddenly swerved into a driveway and cut off the pair, causing the dog—and, therefore, the woman—to stop abruptly. Walking behind them, outraged, I was about to tell off the driver when I noticed the Seeing Eye logo emblazoned on the driver’s-side door.

I would find out later that the dog was likely in its fourth session of the Seeing Eye traffic training—almost halfway through its four months of preparation before being paired with a blind or visually impaired owner. The trainer and the driver were teaching the golden retriever to be prepared for sudden “traffic checks” in all kinds of situations and environments. “We train the dogs to respect cars but not fear them,” says Steve Neumann, who has been a trainer with The Seeing Eye for more than six years. “Otherwise they’d never cross the street.”

Morristown residents and people who work or visit there regularly are used to such scenes. The Seeing Eye’s headquarters occupy a bucolic 69-acre campus just outside the downtown area, and the streets and sidewalks of this Morris County hub serve as classrooms where the guide dogs learn to negotiate the routines and hazards of urban and suburban life on behalf of their owners.

Celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, The Seeing Eye has trained more than 14,000 guide dogs—Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, and German shepherds (as well as boxers, when there is an allergy in the family)—to be the eyes for about 8,000 blind or visually impaired men and women. Owners usually work with several dogs in succession over the course of a lifetime because the dogs retire to life as pets after eight to ten years of work. The Morristown campus houses the nonprofit’s administrative offices and about 300 dogs in various stages of training. It also provides dorm-like residences for students, aged 16 to 75, as they are paired with their guide dogs.

The organization began with Morris Frank, a blind man who, in 1927, read an article called “The Seeing Eye” in the Saturday Evening Post about dogs guiding blinded World War I veterans in Europe. He contacted the writer, Dorothy Harrison Eustis, an American who was training such German shepherds in Switzerland. After completing instruction there, he returned to the United States with a guide dog of his own, Buddy. In 1929, with the help of a donation from Eustis, Frank founded The Seeing Eye in Nashville; a year later it moved to New Jersey, where it has remained ever since. (There are now about a dozen similar guide-dog schools in the United States, but all Seeing Eye dogs come from the New Jersey campus.)

These days, the journey begins in Chester, where a 330-acre breeding compound houses newborn puppies who have been genetically selected for health, intelligence, and temperament. For the first weeks, they live in group kennels where common sounds of sirens and storms and other noises are piped in. After seven weeks, they are placed with puppy-raising families who shower them with affection, teach them basic obedience, and expose them to all kinds of environments. “You basically give them as much love and exposure as you possibly can,” says Wendy Kern, who, along with her husband and two children, raised her first Seeing Eye puppy about fifteen years ago. Kern has seen five of her puppies graduate to become guide dogs. She currently is rearing a yellow Lab named Geri and a golden retriever named Tinsel, who will go back to The Seeing Eye when they are 14 to 18 months old.

“People always ask us how we’re able to give the dog back,” Kern says. “Of course it’s sad to give them up, but if you’re in it with your heart, you’re rewarded at the end because somebody has a new life with this dog.”

Back at The Seeing Eye, the canines begin four months of training with staffers. For the first two months, the trainers walk the dogs and help them learn where to stop and how to lead owners around obstacles on the ground and overhead. The dogs receive no treats or punishment; they are rewarded with praise or, when necessary, disciplined verbally or through the absence of praise—or occasionally corrected with a tug on the leash that does not hurt the dog. Throughout the process, the trainers rate the progress and characteristics of each dog on a computer system, and at certain times the dog is tested with a blindfolded trainer. “At the midterm [blindfold test], a supervisor will be standing close and giving some help,” says apprentice instructor Kaelin Coughlin, 24. “The final blindfold is a test to be sure the dog is safe and ready, and the supervisor stands further behind.”

To prepare for that final exam, the next two months focus on “intelligent disobedience.” When a blind or visually impaired person walks with a guide dog, the human is still leading the way; he or she knows the route, and the dog just guides. For example, the dog will stop at an intersection and wait until the owner tells it to continue. If it encounters some danger that the owner cannot detect—a car, a yawning construction hole, or the edge of a train platform—the dog has been trained to ignore the person’s commands and instead remain where it is safe. That skill is taught during the third and fourth month, and is the most important thing for a dog to learn. “It’s very much a 50-50 partnership,” says Neumann. “We call them teams because that’s what they are.”

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During the fifth month, dogs that have passed all the requirements—about 60 percent of all the dogs that come through the program—are paired with their new owners, who are flown to Morristown from all over the United States and Canada. (Rejected dogs can be adopted from The Seeing Eye.) “You get attached to the dogs, but it really is a very happy moment when the dog and its owner become a team,” says instructor Janice Abbott, 46, who wrote a homework report on The Seeing Eye as a fifth grader in East Brunswick. She knew then that she wanted to work with guide dogs, and has now been with the organization six years.

Up to 24 students live on site at a time. Each is matched with a dog based on the person’s strength, pace, temperament, and home environment. For four weeks, with the help of instructors, the students and their dogs learn to live and travel together on campus, around Morristown, down residential streets, through shopping malls, on trains and buses, and even in the ultimate challenge, New York City. They eat together in the campus dining room, which is set up like a restaurant.

“It’s quite an adjustment, to come here and go through the process and realize that you have to give yourself up to this dog,” says Kathy Murray of Rockaway, who was diagnosed with a retinal disease at the age of 25 and has been losing her sight ever since. Now 40, she has had her guide dog, Winny, for four years and leads tours of the Seeing Eye campus with Winny at her side. “When you first take the handle, it’s a scary feeling. But all of a sudden, you start getting confidence, your shoulders go back, your head is up, and you can walk around with independence. It’s amazing.”

It costs about $50,000 to raise and train each Seeing Eye dog, but a blind or visually impaired person pays only $150 for his or her first dog, and $50 for each subsequent one. That fee includes the cost of travel to the Morristown facility, the weeks of training, and room and board. The person owns the dog outright, but can always call on the Seeing Eye resources for help and support.

The difference between the actual cost and the price the owner pays is made up by a strong endowment. “We are incredibly fortunate to have such support,” says communications director Teresa Davenport, who adds that non-owners as well as owners leave money to The Seeing Eye in their wills. “It’s not exactly something we can regularly count on, but it certainly helps.”

Many owners say that the $50,000 estimate does not begin to cover the true value these dogs bring to their lives. “Getting a guide dog was the best decision I ever made,” says Murray, who has two young sons. “Winny gave me a wonderful gift—she gave me my life back.”

Bonnie Lannom, 38, a communications associate with The Seeing Eye and a graduate of the program herself, is one of six visually impaired full-time staffers in the organization. (The Seeing Eye employs about 200 people in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.) As she walks with Yvonna, a 6-year-old golden retriever, she explains certain occupational hazards that come with having a guide dog. For one thing, the dogs get lots of attention. “People are genuinely curious, but you have to politely ask them not to pet the dog,” Lannom says. (Murray likens the unsolicited affection to someone grabbing the steering wheel from a driver.)

There are also access issues. Although the law requires public establishments such as schools, churches, and stores to allow guide dogs, many put up a fight. “Usually, once you explain [the access law] to people, they’re fine,” says Lannom, who carries a law pamphlet with her just in case. (And yes, the owners do pick up after their dogs. Lannom says it is usually a matter of staying in place while the dog is squatting and then reaching around to find it with a bag over her hand.)

The dogs work hard, but when the harness comes off, they play hard too. “It’s like her uniform,” says Murray of the harness. “She does her job while it’s on, and then she’s a regular old pet dog, playing with the kids when it’s off. She’s amazing. And she’s the only one in the house who always listens to me.”
Unless, of course, Murray is about to step into traffic.

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