BELFAST — Guiding Eyes for the Blind is working to expand its Midcoast network of puppy raisers, said Pat Webber, Guiding Eyes Regional Manager. Webber, who oversees Guiding Eyes' operations in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, has been on staff with the organization for about five years. Presently, she is raising her 18th guide dog, a joyful nine-month-old yellow labrador named Forest.
Webber was a school teacher and volunteer puppy raiser prior to taking her staff post with Guiding Eyes for the Blind. She taught instrumental music, and said that the schools she worked in — both Belfast and Camden —always allowed her to take her guide dogs in training into her classroom. Socializing the puppies is a key factor in their development and training, she said.
"[Being a puppy raiser] is how I got started in this," Webber said of Guiding Eyes. Now, she added, the organization is looking to expand its network of puppy raisers in the Midcoast area.
Raising a puppy is generally a 14 to 16 month commitment, though Webber says some raisers prefer to share their dog, signing on for a portion of the months devoted to raising and socializing.
"Some people really love the little puppy stage, and others prefer a slightly more mature dog. We call these 'home change' dogs," she said.
Adding that the organization does its best to work with raisers and does not discourage this arrangement, though all homes are carefully vetted and must go through an approval process.
She noted that the first puppy is always the most challenging for raisers, as their homes must be properly setup to accommodate dogs bred for their brains.
"People don't even realize how smart these guys are," Webber says, looking affectionately at Forest.
While many think only of the inevitability — passing the puppy on to its next home, and into a life of service — Webber said there are many puppy raisers who repeat the process as she has.
"We love to have repeat raisers; you get to know how it is to live with with these dogs," she said.
Webber admitted that it "never gets easier," passing the puppies on to pursue the next chapter in their lives.
"I like to think of it as sending my dog off to college; I've done everything I can to prepare them. We keep in touch with the dogs, and seeing them at work is like having a lifeline to your pup," she said.
"We all get attached, you can't help but get attached," she added.
Guiding Eyes for the Blind has a breeding program in New York, though the dogs are bred to impeccable standards — and Forest is a handsome example of a labrador — they are not bred for looks, Webber said.
She said that the top seven percent of guide dogs that go through the program are selected to re-enter the breeding program. She noted that the qualities that are most crucial in the selection of the dogs that will eventually provide a critical service include health and intelligence. While most of the dogs in the program are labrador retrievers, German Shepherds are also bred for the Guiding Eyes Program. Webber noted that German Shepherds are often less easily distracted than labs.
"These dogs are bred specifically for this service; it's not just a matter of well-trained dogs, they have to make decisions," Webber noted.
She said that there is a certain degree of "willful disobedience" that is requisite to being a successful guide dog. She used the example of a dog having to make the decision that is it unsafe to cross a road in the event that their human does not realize it.
Among the puppy raisers are retirees, students from Unity College, homeschool students, and high school juniors working on community service hours required for graduation at many high schools, Webber said. The program attracts interest from people who hail from a variety of backgrounds, and Guiding Eyes does everything they can as an organization to ensure that puppy raisers receive a great deal of support. Puppy raisers and their charges must attend a group training session twice each month. Regional classes are offered in both Augusta and Belfast, with the larger group convening once a month in Portland.
"We work really hard to make [raising a Guiding Eyes puppy] fit into people's lives," Webber said. She added that the organization tries to "match puppies to people," based on activity level and lifestyle.
She also said that the organization offers support at all times, and encourages open and honest communication about a dog's progress or personality. She admitted that sometimes a dog and human don't work well together, and said that the organization is always there to provide support, or a home change if necessary. Additionally, the organization provides veterinary care and basic supplies, such as crates, harnesses, leashes and longlines, to their puppy raisers.
"A puppy raiser's job is to teach good house manners, to socialize their puppy and to teach it to be a good citizen," She explained.
Just as a percentage of dogs will be placed back into the breeding program, a percentage will also be ruled out as guide dogs. Webber said there is a waiting list of up to three years of people wishing to adopt one of the dogs that has not been selected to advance in the program.
As Forest lounges in the shade at the Belfast Boat Landing, Webber discusses one of her most memorable puppy raising relationships. Her fourth Guiding Eyes puppy, a yellow lab named "Dove" went to a woman in New York who Webber kept in touch with throughout Dove's tenure as her guide dog. Webber and Dove's human developed a special bond, and the New York duo would visit Maine in the summers to allow Dove to enjoy one of her favorite pass times: swimming. Dove was so gifted that she even served the New York Police Department, working undercover to help identify cabbies who were refusing to stop for visually impaired citizens.
Perhaps the sweetest part of Webber's relationship with Dove occurred much later. Upon retirement from service, Dove's human let Webber take her back to Maine. Dove lived out her golden years in Maine, at the side of her original raiser, with plenty of swimming involved.
Jenna Lookner can be reached at email@example.com