T immy, a gangly seven-month-old black Labrador, does a lot of the things you’d expect of a dog his age. He chews on sticks, barks when he spots other canines and greets new humans with a swiftly wagging tail.
Unlike most young dogs, he quickly drops those saliva-drenched sticks when instructed. With the right hand cue or equivalent verbal prompt, he’ll settle into a lying position, even when there’s a squirrel nearby doing his or her best to distract the pup.
Timmy is being groomed to become a guide dog with Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a non-profit that’s been training dogs to work with the visually impaired since 1954, and that level of self-control will be of utmost importance to the puppy’s future owner.
From about eight weeks until 16-18 months old, dogs like Timmy live with volunteers who teach them guide-dogging fundamentals, after which they return to Guiding Eyes for four to six additional months of preparation. Happily, even after a pooch is placed, Puppy Trainers are given updates on their “students,” often retaining lifelong relationships with the dogs and their new owners.
In addition to becoming dedicated seeing-eye dogs, some of the graduates go on to work with children in Guiding Eyes’s “Heeling Autism” service, or with law enforcement. Dogs that don’t quite make the cut for a life of service are adopted out as pets. Others become part of the group’s breeding program, made up mostly of Labs as well as some German Shepherds.
Alena Gribskov and her boyfriend Alex Guiha are Volunteer Puppy Raisers for the organization’s Connecticut region and have linked up with Timmy for this stage of his training. Guiding Eyes, headquartered in Yorktown Heights, New York, is always looking for additional puppy raisers locally, Gribskov says, and she hopes more New Haven-area residents will heed the call to join the ranks of volunteers, many of whom Gribskov has met on doggie playdates and in joint training sessions.
As you can imagine, training a dog for a lifetime of service is not quite a walk in the park, though there are plenty of those. Gribskov and Guiha attended classes before even meeting Timmy, and, in addition to ongoing training efforts at home, they continue to attend one Guiding Eyes-organized session a month to ensure the puppy’s on track. That said, even working full-time and living in an apartment, Gribskov says it’s been very manageable thus far.
It helps that Guiding Eyes pays for vet bills and medications in addition to crate and collar. Between training, supplies and care, the organization estimates that its average lifetime expenditures total roughly $45,000 per dog. That may sound like a lot of money, but, then again, these are particularly valuable dogs, with an important purpose. Since Timmy’s been living in New Haven, he’s learned a bunch of commands, from your typical “sit” and “stay” to the not-so-typical “close,” which signals that a dog should be “sitting really, really close” to its owner, particularly helpful when a person needs guidance in a crowded place. Socialization—allowing the dog to observe and become comfortable in a variety of situations, and with a variety of different people—is another important part of the process for volunteers, ensuring dogs feel as comfortable in a quiet field as they do on busy city streets, and among human crowds.
“You love them,” Gribskov says. “You teach them that working with humans is rewarding.”
Observing her interact with Timmy is a great way to see these ideas in practice. Volunteers are taught to use positive reinforcement: when Gribskov asks Timmy to drop a stick and he complies, she quickly delivers a small treat and tells him he’s a “good boy.” When he sits at her command, she does the same.
Training the dog to do more complex maneuvers means breaking the command down into simple steps, Gribskov says. Teaching him to walk to a specific location and lie down there—which sounds like it would be extremely difficult—simply means dissecting the action and teaching him each step, with treats and verbal encouragement along the way.
As training progresses, there’s less gustatory and more verbal praise, Gribskov says. You won’t see a volunteer yell at or scold their dog beyond a firm, “No,” nor did I observe Gribskov keeping Timmy from engaging in normal puppy behavior—creeping slowly towards a bird he found very interesting, for instance—when I visited with them on the New Haven Green.
The adorable, gangly young Lab and his temporary owner have clearly bonded, which leads me to ask the question that Gribskov says she gets asked all the time: How is she going to let him go?
She says she doesn’t worry too much, knowing what Timmy’s future has in store. “This is a dog who is meant to do a very specific and amazing thing,” she says. “And I’m helping him do that.”
Guiding Eyes for the Blind
Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.