What happens to the guide dogs that don’t make the cut?
By Marc Phillips
They’re loud and make a mess. They keep you up at night. They chew or eat inappropriate things. No, I’m not talking about unruly infants and toddlers, but puppies.
Just like raising a child, training a puppy can be a very rewarding experience. However, when the animal is raised with intent, it benefits a greater good.
Ithaca College juniors Jen Kamish and Shawna Brown raised a guide dog in their Garden Apartment last school year. Helen, a rambunctious black Labrador Retriever, was seen as a shared responsibility. Both Kamish and Brown paid for Helen’s food and toys—a true sign of shared ownership.
While Kamish always had a love for dogs growing up, her father’s allergies prevented the family from buying or adopting a dog.
“I have loved dogs all my life,” she said. “Participating in Guiding Eyes for the Blind provided me with the perfect option… enjoy[ing] the company of my favorite animal while also giving back to the community.”
Guiding Eyes for the Blind is a non-profit organization that matches up their own select breed of canines with pre-screened raisers. The admirable job of training a dog for a life of service is not to be taken for granted. Rigorous and frequent testing ultimately proves whether a dog is fit for their intended role. Only the best succeed.
Helen was one of the dogs who passed an initial exam but could not advance further. Her fear and sensitivity to loud noises immediately disqualified her. But as Michelle Brier, Guiding Eyes’ marketing manager described, “Dogs which do not pass the typical exams have a chance for alternative careers in our organization.”
Guiding Eyes for the Blind has a new program called “Heeling Autism” for the dogs that do not pass the seeing-eye tests. These dogs are trained to play the role of four-legged guardians. In one news clip from the organization’s Web site, a Westchester County, N.Y. family discussed how their dog actually has the ability to prevent their autistic 4-year-old son from running away on impulse. When in a public setting, the son is attached with a belt to the dog’s harness. The parents can breathe a sigh of relief knowing a trained dog can control their child’s erratic tendencies. Fittingly, with the United States’ autism prevalence at one in 150, there has been a surge in the demand for guide dogs.
If a dog is still not seen as fit for the aforementioned programs, they can be enrolled to work with Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agents and K9 units.
Because of the Guiding Eyes for the Blind’s nearly pure breeding pool, the dogs have a pristine background. The strength and intelligence possessed by the dogs can make for excellent training and a long career before retirement from the squad.
“We have been breeding specific dogs over the past fifty years,” Brier said. “We do not deal with any outside breeders. Normal dogs have a 30 percent chance of getting a disease or disorder. Our dogs have a significantly lower chance of ever having such issues.”
Dogs that do not make this final cut can be placed for adoption. Prices for the organization’s purebred pooches range from $1,300 to $2,000. Having grown attached to Helen, the Brown family adopted her. The feisty dog is now living in a suburb of Philadelphia.
According to Joy Hawksby, Central New York’s regional manager of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, only two Ithaca College students are currently raising dogs. This number fluctuates depending on student interest. The prospect of raising, although technically not “owning” a dog, interests underclassmen.
“Giving someone eyes is probably one of the best gifts I can think of,” said freshman Cicely Reich.
Reich loves and misses her two playful Labrador Retrievers back at home, Ranger and Finn. It only makes sense that the occupational therapy major wants to raise a dog to benefit the disabled.
Though she has yet to apply, Reich looks forward to the idea of further enriching her college career. But if her dog has a similar fate as Helen, she is unsure of adoption. “It all comes down to the price,” said Reich. Unfazed, she looks forward to the prospect of training and “owning” a dog her junior year.
“Raising a dog to allow someone with seeing impairments to become more functional in life is such a great opportunity.”
Marc Phillips is a freshman IMC major and a Cat Fancy subscriber. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.