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05/22/2013 10:20 am ET Updated Mar 16, 2015

Guide Dog Training: What I Gained By Raising A Dog I Couldn't Keep

Carlos Emilio

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It's hard for Amy Hempel to say who's happier: the volunteers raising guide dogs for the blind, the men and women they help, or the noble canines angling for tummy rubs.

By Amy Hempel

"Where in your life are you most yourself?" That was the simple and profound question put to me by a friend. My answer was "With dogs" -- true since the first grade and my first dog, a black Labrador retriever. The few years when I did not have a dog are best described by another question, this one posed by Elizabeth von Arnim in her autobiography, All the Dogs of My Life: "How was it that there were such long periods during which I wasn't making some good dog happy?"

Interdependence has long seemed to me the ideal in a relationship. Dogs have always taken good care of me and vice versa. Years ago, I saw a heightened example of this kind of exchange, so vivid and affecting it propelled my love and gratitude for dogs -- all dogs -- to another plane and called for a response.

I went to a graduation at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a guide-dog training school in Yorktown Heights, New York. GEB has a monthly ceremony to honor the dozen or so men and women who have just completed nearly four weeks of training at the school with their new guide. The occasion is immensely moving, and it is open to the public. I learned there that guide dogs cannot be raised in kennels; they must be home-socialized, and there is a constant need for volunteer "puppy raisers."

I attended the next month's graduation, too, returning the way another person might go to a contemplative retreat -- to be reminded of what really matters, to regain perspective, and to see people and dogs at their selfless best. I applied to be a puppy raiser and was approved just after Thanksgiving in 1996. I signed a contract promising that I would raise and train the puppy to GEB standards for a year and a half, at which time I would give the dog up for specialized training -- four months with a professional guiding-eyes trainer -- and, if successful, a life of service with a blind partner. I brought home an 8-week-old black Lab named Savoy.

What followed were nearly two years of bimonthly classes at GEB and a love affair, because you don't just love the dogs, you fall in love with them. Every moment is intensified because of the impending separation, which can make a walk in the park almost unendurably poignant. Luckily, these pups are hilarious and unfailingly game, and reside entirely in the moment.

What we puppy raisers can do for the blind people who will come to rely on these dogs is build the dogs' confidence and base of experience: We introduce them to a wide range of situations and activities, we get them used to being groomed and handled, we teach them good manners, we see that they have fun and enjoy their work. (Early on, I heard of one yellow Lab who accompanied his partner, a young professional woman, on a business trip shortly after they graduated. The woman packed the night before but did not close her suitcase until morning; when she went to unpack at the hotel, she found that her guide dog had packed several of his toys during the night.)

At the time of Savoy's IFT (in-for-training, the qualifying exam), she aced all but one category: She was too easily startled for guide work and was chosen instead for the school's brood/stud program; mating with an unflappable male could compensate for Savoy's tendency in the next generation. No longer a puppy raiser, I became a "brood harbor" and got to keep my girl. But because I had fully expected to give her up from the start, I felt I owed more. So Savoy and I volunteered to take in very young puppies for home socialization. We bring several of them home for a week of individual attention that often results in better performance when they are temperament-tested at 7 or 8 weeks, at which time they are either accepted into the program or released for adoption as pets.

At a recent graduation, I drifted among the groups that formed proud and teary reunions around the graduates. It is both humbling and exalting to be a witness as blind men and women meet the volunteers who have raised their new partners. For their part, the noble guides lie on their backs, grinning, getting tummy rubs. Out of harness, a Lab dances with a child. A young couple hands a bag to the blind man who has just graduated with the dog they raised. "We brought two or three toys he really likes to play with." The dog's head disappears into the bag and surfaces with a worn squeaky pacifier.

"He loves to wrestle...."

"She grew up in a house with a big yard...."

"I hope you don't mind, he's starting to shed," says a puppy raiser. "It's part of the package," says the blind partner. "I have two cats that shed, too. Oh, I found out he's left-handed!" "I didn't know that," says the raiser. "I asked him to shake, and he gave me his left paw," says the admiring partner. "I'll bet he's ambidextrous!" says the equally admiring raiser.

John Spencer, a graduate who speaks for his class, describes the training they have all just been through. He talks about the value of this time and says, "It wasn't wasted. It wasn't even spent. It was shared." And one of the staff quotes a Swedish proverb: A shared joy is a double joy.

For information on volunteering, go to the GEB Web site, www.guidingeyes.org, or call 800-942-0149. Recommended reading: Two Puppies, by Jane and Michael Stern, an excellent factual and personal history of this program.

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