By Luke Baynes
Ever since she was a little girl, Williston native Kathleen Leach knew she wanted to work with animals. So when the time came for her graduation challenge project at Champlain Valley Union High School, she got a head start on her career path by becoming a puppy raiser with Guiding Eyes for the Blind.
“I’ve been saying I wanted to be a vet since everyone was saying that in first grade, and I just never really grew out of it,” Leach said. “Doing this puppy raising with Guiding Eyes was right along the track I want to be on.”
Founded in 1954, Guiding Eyes for the Blind is a guide dog school headquartered in Westchester County, N.Y. Though it employs professional dog trainers when puppies reach young adult age, Guiding Eyes relies on volunteers to raise pups during the maturation period of 8 weeks to 18 months old.
“Honestly, a lot of it is very similar to someone who is a very devoted puppy owner who just wants to have a really well-trained dog,” Leach said. “One of the main things puppy raisers do is teach the dogs what kind of temperament is appropriate in different situations. So for example, when they’re at home, they can be playful and playing with their toys and sniffing around and having fun, but if you’re out with other people there’s going to be a very different energy.”
Rachel Silverman, a Guiding Eyes regional manager whose territory includes all of Vermont, noted that the making of a guide dog begins before birth, through selective breeding. All told, the training process takes about 2 1/2 years, including the time spent with puppy raisers. If at any time during the process a canine is deemed unsuitable for guide dog work, it is either sold as a pet or is given the opportunity to “seek other careers,” such as police detection or therapy work through Guiding Eyes’ Heeling Autism program.
“Usually whatever career they choose is a good one for them, and that is a priority for us—that a dog is going somewhere where they’re going to enjoy what they’re doing,” Silverman said. “We don’t want to force a dog to become a guide dog. They’d just be stressed out.”
Guiding Eyes offers guide dogs to the visually impaired free of charge, despite the fact that the average cost of the program is $45,000 per dog. It is funded through private donations and charity events and depends on volunteers like Leach to maintain its livelihood.
Leach began raising Dove, a female Labrador retriever, during her junior year at CVU. When she left home in September to study animal science and pre-veterinary medicine at the University of Rhode Island, Dove stayed behind with family for two months before passing her Guiding Eyes exam and leaving the nest to begin formal guide dog training.
“That was devastating. Giving her back was really difficult,” Leach said. “But the final goal and the light at the end of the tunnel is that she (will be) graduating with someone who really needs her. Knowing that she’s going to fulfill a job that’s going to drastically change someone’s life, that’s really what helps us get through the transition of not having her anymore.”
Despite the sadness of parting with Dove, Leach said she hopes to raise another puppy this year. She is currently in discussions with officials at Guiding Eyes and the University of Rhode Island to establish a Guiding Eyes chapter at URI.
“From a student standpoint it will be pretty difficult, because I have a pretty rigorous course schedule to be prepared for vet school, so I know that having a puppy with me will make it pretty difficult and I’m going to have to be much more diligent about my studies,” she said.
But she pointed out that training a puppy to be well-behaved during college lectures will give it a leg up on other guide dog trainees that spend days relaxing at home.
“I think it would be so rewarding for that puppy to have much higher standards set for it than one of the other puppies,” Leach said.
Guiding Eyes for the Blind is currently seeking puppy raisers in Northern Vermont. For more information, contact Rachel Silverman at [email protected] or (845) 661-1014. Puppy raising classes are held Thursday evenings at the Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired in South Burlington.