For many people with low vision and complete vision loss, seeing eye dogs are a vital connection to the world. They allow their owners to navigate unfamiliar terrain, often protecting them from unseen threats to safety.
But not just any dog (good, smart and handsome as he may be) can be a seeing eye dog. The Seeing Eye, in Morristown, N.J., works to develop potential candidate doggos into the trained professionals we out and about in our communities.
Once puppies are ready to leave their mothers, they are placed with an owner for care and instruction until they are between 13 to 16 months. These initial instructors teach them basic manners and commands and socialize in situations that range from shopping and car rides to entering an airport and boarding a plane. And of course, they give them all the love and kindness every puppy needs and deserves!
Once the young dogs are ready to begin seeing eye training in earnest, they are returned to The Seeing Eye and given a health assessment, dental cleaning and neutered or spayed. Each dog then begins a four month training program that will begin on the streets of Morristown and finish with tackling New York City. Because apparently what they say about the Big Apple is true for dogs, too: “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.”
Per The Seeing Eye’s website: “The bond between Seeing Eye dogs and their instructors forms quickly and is very strong. The dogs are taught to guide with a combination of repetition and praise. Clicker training is used to enhance the dogs’ skill in targeting specific objects. Half-way through the training period, instructors take a blindfolded walk with each of their charges to test their dogs’ abilities. At the end of the training cycle, the blindfold test is repeated on a more complicated route to ensure the dogs are ready to begin work as Seeing Eye dogs for their new owners.”
After training in complete, the dogs will spend 25 days undergoing additional training with their new owners. (Owners returning for a subsequent seeing eye dog only need 18 days of training.) While commands and signals are part of the training, The Seeing Eye stresses that the most important part of any owner/seeing eye dog relationship is the bond between human and animal.
Matches between owner and dog are carefully considered, too. From the pace at which one walks to the neighborhood in which one lives, instructors closely examine the owners lifestyle needs and personality to find a perfect match. The Seeing Eye describes the process as “part science, part art and part magic.”
The importance of seeing eye dogs to people with low vision can best be summed up in The Seeing Eye’s top goal:
“To increase the independence and dignity of people who are blind, at all times treating applicants, students and graduates with respect.”
To find a seeing eye dog program near you, visit https://www.assistancedogsinternational.org/.