My Seeing Eye dog and I visit elementary schools to teach kids about disabilities, service dogs and teamwork. During my talks with the kids, I explain three rules to keep in mind if you happen to see a guide dog with a harness on:
- Don’t pet the dog
- Don’t feed the dog.
- Don’t call out the dog’s name.
The students at the school I visited recently seem nonplussed by these rules. They’d already read my children’s book Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound, and, more importantly, one of their teachers is raising a puppy for Leader Dogs for the Blind. She brings black Labrador Retriever puppy Rory to school with her every day. At home, she and her husband and their four children all volunteer their time, money and efforts to raise puppies, and once the pups are a year old they return them to Leader Dogs headquarters in Rochester, Mich., to begin intense training to become a guide.
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Rory was already at school when his puppy raiser and her youngest son met me and my Seeing Eye dog, Whitney, at the train station. The little boy in the back seat admitted he cried when he said goodbye to Mack, their first pup.
“We all did,” his mom added. “But we know it’s all for a good cause.”
Policies and practices vary in the different guide dog programs in North America. Leader Dogs allows puppy raisers to name the dog they take home. (Mack was named for Michigan’s Mackinac Island, where this family first learned about Leader Dogs.) The Seeing Eye, where I train with my dogs, opts for naming puppies at birth to help keep track of them all.
Another difference: Seeing Eye grads don’t meet the families who raise their dogs as puppies. Leader Dogs has an “open adoption” policy, which got mixed reviews from the family raising Rory now. The mom enjoys keeping up with the man in Baltimore who is partnered with Mack, but her young son lamented that attending the Leader Dog graduation meant “having to say goodbye to Mack all over again.”
At school, the puppy-raiser/teacher got a kick out of watching my Seeing Eye dog Whitney turn her head left and right, scanning the environment as she led me through the school. “They don’t do that when they’re puppies,” she observed. “It’s so fun to see the finished product!” She wondered if Whitney might like to meet Rory. Whitney would have *loved* that, but she is so new to her job that I thought it might be prudent to keep her on a, ahem, short leash.
The two dogs did catch each other’s eye when Rory went out to “empty” during a lunch break. Rory barked out a greeting, but Whitney did not respond in kind. She sat up and her ears perked, but she stayed quiet, setting an example. After all, Rory is still learning. He’s just a pup, not a professional. Not yet, at least.