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.
#10 Milo (Male)/ Ella (Female)
Milo claimed the No. 17 spot in 2012, marking its first entrance into the Top 20. Ella joined the ranks of the Top 100 in 2006 and has remained a prevalent pick since then, grabbing the No. 64 slot in 2012.
#9 Simba (Male)/ Charlie (Female)
Simba, currently No. 53, first became popular during the mid-nineties, thanks to <em>The Lion King</em>. It dropped out of the Top 100 in 2001, but came back in 2009, seeing a major surge in popularity over the past few years. Traditionally a male dog name, Charlie has become a favorite for female dogs, joining the Top 100 in 2010.
#8 King (Male)/ Athena (Female)
Although it may seem like an established and stately name, King, the No. 51 name, didn’t break into the Top 100 until 2006, making it a relative newcomer. Athena is an even more recent addition to the list of popular names, joining the Top 100 in 2010 and rising sharply over the last couple of years, hitting No. 62 in 2012.
#7 Leo (Male)/ Maya (Female)
Leo, the 30th most popular name overall, made the Top 100 list for the first time in 2001 and has been climbing up the chart ever since. Maya joined the Top 100 list back in 2005, rising to No. 60 by 2012.
#6 Ace (Male)/ Willow (Female)
Ace first made the Top 100 in 2003. It rose to No. 31 in 2012, perhaps due to the recent trend of owners choosing old-school human nicknames for their pets. Willow, hitting the Top 100 in 2009, has made quite the impression, rising to No. 59 last year.
#5 Jax (Male)/ Stella (Female)
At No. 35, Jax isn’t one of the most popular names, but it’s moved up the ranks quickly considering it wasn’t in the Top 100 until 2009. One interesting tidbit: The name Jackson has declined over the past five years, and this is the first time Jax has earned a more popular spot than its longer counterpart. Stella made the Top 100 for the first time back in 2001 and hit No. 22 last year. Could the adorable Frenchie on Modern Family have something to do with the name's rise in popularity?
#4 Bentley (Male)/ Nala (Female)
Bentley is a star on the rise, joining the Top 100 in 2002 and hitting No. 7 last year. It’s been one of the Top 10 male dog names for the past three years. Nala, a name from one of our favorite animated films,<em> The Lion King</em>, was the No. 25 most popular name last year, after first making the Top 100 back in 2003.
#3 Gunner (Male)/ Piper (Female)
Gunner first came on our radar in 2004, and ever since then, it’s climbed in popularity, ranking now at No. 28. Piper, which now holds the No. 42 spot, broke into the Top 100 in 2006 and quickly gained steam.
#2 Thor (Male)/ Layla (Female)
Although Thor didn't even appear on the Most Popular list back in 2003, it climbed to No. 27 in 2012, after making the list for the first time in 2010. Not coincidentally, the movie Thor came out in 2011, and the main character in that movie also starred in last year's top film, The Avengers. Layla, at No. 37, might not have box office stats to compare to Thor, but it’s also risen quickly, cracking the Top 100 in 2004 and hitting No. 37 last year.
#1 Dexter (Male)/ Luna (Female)
Dexter rose in popularity the most of all male dog names, starting at No. 99 in 2003 and landing at No. 25 in 2012. Luna's rise in popularity was even more meteoric, also beginning at No. 99 in 2003 and rising to No. 19 last year.
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