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Thinking About Fostering a Guide Dog? Here’s What You Need to Know 

Guiding Eyes For The Blind
 Photo by: Guiding Eyes for the Blind
There are many different ways you can volunteer in the dog community, and being a puppy raiser for a guide dog program could be the perfect way for you to contribute. Kerry Lemerise, Puppy Program Manager at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a nonprofit organization that provides guide dogs to people with vision loss, has kindly answered some questions about the process.

What is your role with Guiding Eyes for the Blind?

Kerry Lemerise, Puppy Program Manager: I oversee our 38 puppy-raising regions. The regions are located on the East Coast from Maine to North Carolina and west to Ohio. I support Regional Managers who work with all the volunteers who raise potential guide dogs for Guiding Eyes for the Blind. We currently have more than 400 volunteer puppy raisers.

What does Guiding Eyes for the Blind do?

KL: Guiding Eyes for the Blind is a not-for-profit guide-dog training school headquartered in Yorktown Heights, New York. The Guiding Eyes community is dedicated to supporting the transformative relationship between a person and a guide dog. We partner blind and visually impaired people with guide dogs that provide independence, freedom, and confidence.

How are puppies chosen for the program?

KL: We’re diligent about breeding for health and temperament, and we begin training our puppies within days of being born at our Canine Development Center in Patterson, New York. Early training focuses on socialization and allows us to see how puppies respond to new situations.

Are there volunteering opportunities with Guiding Eyes for the Blind? 

KL: Yes! All of our puppies are raised by volunteers. If you live near a puppy-raising region, you can volunteer to raise a puppy or you can volunteer to be a puppy sitter to help a raiser when they are traveling. You can also help make a difference in a person’s life by donating to Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Every year we match more than 150 new guide-dog teams and support nearly 1,000 graduates, and all our services are free.

What qualifications do you need to become a puppy raiser?

KL: Our volunteers have a diverse range of experience with raising and caring for dogs—no specific experience is required. Volunteers can live in rural, suburban, or urban areas. They just need to have the time required to raise and train an eight-week-old puppy for 12 to 16 months. They need to give the puppy lots of love and patience, as well as be consistent in teaching the puppy his new skills. 


What supplies does a puppy raiser need?

KL: We provide puppy raisers with a crate and a collar for their puppy. We also provide preventive medicine and veterinary care. Raisers will need to purchase a leash and dog food. The puppies also love toys, so we provide a starter kit for all puppies, which includes one of their favorites—a Nylabone.

Is there a step-by-step puppy-raising process?

KL: Yes—in fact, Guiding Eyes for the Blind has created its own training program called STEP (Successive Training and Enrichment Program). Puppy raisers attend class weekly until their puppy is four months old, and then they attend biweekly trainings. They also receive one-on-one training with their Regional Manager a minimum of two times during the year. Guiding Eyes is proud to share our STEP training with guide-dog programs around the world.


Are there specific commands that raisers need to teach the puppies?

KL: Puppy raisers teach their dogs basic obedience and house manners. These commands include sit, down, come, and stay. They learn to walk on leash without pulling and also learn to be polite with people, which means not jumping up when they meet them. At home, the puppies learn to ignore food on counters, garbage cans, shoes, children’s toys, and other items that they shouldn’t use as chew toys. This prepares the puppies for their guide-dog training when they return to the Guiding Eyes Training Center in Yorktown Heights, New York.

How does a puppy become a guide dog?

KL: Through exceptional genetics and breeding practices, Guiding Eyes whelps dogs with the temperament and health needed for guide-dog work. After eight weeks of training in our Canine Development Center in Patterson, New York, the puppies are matched with the volunteer puppy raisers, who raise them until they are 14 months old.
Puppy raisers work with Guiding Eyes trainers to teach their dogs basic skills and house manners. After a year of training with volunteer puppy raisers, dogs return to Guiding Eyes to continue their training with the professional training staff in Yorktown Heights. The staff works with the dogs for a minimum of five months to teach them the skills needed to safely guide their handler.

How are the dogs placed with their handlers?

KL: Guiding Eyes provides outreach to potential students to make them aware of our services and covers the cost to admit, prepare, train, and graduate each student with a professionally trained guide dog. When a potential student applies for a guide dog, we interview them and visit them in their home to understand their lifestyle and their needs. If they are admitted, they will be matched with a guide dog who walks at the right pace, is comfortable in the setting in which they live, and will meet their specific needs. 
Students live on campus and receive instruction during their 21-day stay at our Training Center or through our Home Training Program. There are 1,000 Guiding Eyes teams actively working in the United States and abroad. Because of the generous support of donors, all guide-dog services are provided at no cost.
We care about every detail that goes into making the perfect match, and we’re constantly pushing the boundaries of our approach and sharing our knowledge so we can continue to build phenomenal graduate teams.

What are some things that guide dogs can do for their handlers?

KL: Guide dogs are trained to identify elevation changes, curbs, doorways, and overhead hazards for their handlers. They are also trained to target specific locations, doors, and elevators to assist their handlers in getting wherever they need to go. Our program is personalized for everyone who comes through our doors. 
Having a Guiding Eyes dog is more than a way to navigate around obstacles; it’s about a connection that expands opportunities. Everyone is dedicated to supporting these special partnerships. We care deeply about our students’ needs, so we are meticulous about our dogs’ health and well-being. We offer a lifetime of support through our veterinary program and though ongoing access to experienced instructors who work in regions across the country.

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