The eyes have it: Guide dog trainers give a lot, get a lot in return

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PORTLAND — Raising and training a dog as a personal pet can be hard, but rewarding.

Raising and training a guide dog can much harder, but much more rewarding, according to several area residents who raise puppies for the local chapter of Guilding Eyes for the Blind, an internationally certified guide dog school.

“My favorite match of all time was my puppy Alexa with Abigail, an 18-year-old young woman who was going to college in the fall,” Diane Clark, of Peaks Island, said recently. “Together they took off to another state and have made a real place for themselves. I hear from Abigail quite often and she keeps me up to date with Alexa.

“On one hand, I saw my dog that I adored and would have given anything to have back. But on the other hand, I saw something that made me so proud I thought my heart would burst,” said Clark, who is now raising Rave, a 5-month-old black Labrador. “Giving back a puppy I have raised for months is still difficult, but I would not change a moment of the time I have spent with this program.”

Volunteer puppy raisers and trainers prepare guide dogs to help blind or visually impaired adults or autistic children live better lives. Currently, 15 pups are being raised by volunteers and their families across Maine.

Nina Scribner of Yarmouth is raising Rave’s sister, Rosemary, the 18th puppy in her 26 years as a puppy raiser for the Guiding Eyes organization.

“The relationship between puppy raisers and the pups is the foundation for all the life lessons a guide dog needs to master,” Scribner said. “We now have shifted to relationship centered training to teach pups how to make the correct decisions. We try not to manage and control but to be patient and give the pups time.”

One of the differences between raising a personal dog and a future guide dog is that more rules and consequences apply to them.

“Guide dogs cannot play in some of the same ways that personal dogs can,” Clark said. “If a personal dog takes a shoe and moves it, it’s no big deal. If a guide dog takes a shoe and moves it, a blind person won’t be able to find it. So we have to reward them when they walk past it. It makes socializing with non-guide dogs difficult because they don’t follow the same rules.”

Working guide dogs live two lives. At home they are, overall, like any other personal dog. But when the harness is on, it is a signal that special rules apply and their master is relying on them to make life-saving decisions. Among many other things, guide dogs learn how to identify hazards and curbs, when to cross the street, and how to tune out distractions.

Volunteer puppy raisers receive the pups when the dogs are 8 weeks old and nurture and train them for 14 to 16 months. If the dogs pass their final evaluations and are accepted into the program, they are transferred to the Guiding Dogs Training Center in New York. Eventually, if they graduate from the program, they are matched with a blind or vision-impaired person or child with autism.

One way to learn about the responsibilities and what to expect from puppy raising is by puppy sitting for current Guiding Eyes’ puppy raisers and attending pre-placement classes. Guiding Eyes focuses on helping volunteers integrate the pups into their lives, not structuring their lives around the dogs.

Larry and Janet Amberger are puppy raisers from Cape Elizabeth. The Ambergers have raised four pups and estimate they’ve spent roughly 1,500 hours and $1,200 a year training each of them. Their most recent pup, Amity, went in for training in early August. They expected to receive their next pup, Floral, this month.

“We are very enthusiastic about this program. Giving the gift of increased freedom of movement to a seeing-impaired person is emotionally rewarding,” Larry Amberger said.

“We think (the Guiding Eyes program) is great training for a personal puppy as well. I would apply some of the same methods,” Janet Amberger added.

A 4-year-old yellow Labrador, Obie, lives with the Ambergers now. He was too distracted by other dogs at the training center and was released after approximately 6 months.

Obie is now a certified therapy dog. Eight Guiding Eyes dogs have served as certified therapy dogs at Maine Medical Center.

“According to the National Eye Institute, 3.3 million Americans live with blindness or vision loss,” said Lee-Anne Leverone, Guiding Eyes regional coordinator for Maine. “Due to the aging population, this number is projected to reach 5.5 million by 2020. Currently, 1 in 110 children are diagnosed with autism. As a result, the demand for guide dogs and autism service dogs will increase significantly over the next 10 years.”

Guiding Eyes will hold a pre-placement class in Portland in early October, and hopes to have a new group of puppies joining Maine puppy raisers after the New Year. Contact Kathleen Hayward, kh@millspoint154.com, with inquiries or visit the Guiding Eyes website at guidingeyes.org.

Freelance writer Jonathan Gamble lives in South Portland.

Sidebar Elements


Local puppy raisers spend an afternoon at Ocean Gateway on the Portland waterfront. From left: Lee-Anne Leverone with Juanita, Nina Scribner with Rosemary, Elora Hixon with Francine, Grace Carter with Tetris, Pat Webber with Chester, and Diane Clark with Rave.

Peaks Island resident Diane Clark plays with her pup Rave during a sunny afternoon on the Portland waterfront. Clark has raised seven pups for Guiding Eyes for the Blind.Yarmouth resident Nina Scribner is raising Rosemary, her 18th puppy with Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Scribner has volunteered as a puppy raiser with Guiding Eyes for 26 years.
Cape Elizabeth residents Larry and Janet Amberger at Fort Williams Park with their dog Obie. The Ambergers have raised four pups with Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Obie is now a certified therapy dog.

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