It’s tough to train a puppy. It’s messy and frustrating and a good way to lose sleep. But we push through it because we know that, down the road, we will have a wonderful companion. But what if, after you put in all the hard work, you had to give the puppy up? Could you do it, even if you knew someone needed that dog more than you? Laura Williams has, two times in fact. The Verona High School sophomore raises puppies for the Seeing Eye.
Despite all the adaptive technologies that have been created for the blind, nothing is quite as big a help as a guide dog. The oldest guide dog program in the U.S. is at the Seeing Eye in Morristown, and it relies on a network of volunteers to raise hundreds of German shepherd, Labrador Retriever and golden retriever puppies for the blind. Yes, hundreds: In 2009, the Seeing Eye had 597 puppy-raising families.
And it pretty much takes a family to raise a puppy, especially when you are a high school student involved in band, track and a host of other activities and the Seeing Eye has very strict rules about how a puppy can be socialized. A guide dog must be trained to go to the bathroom only in its owner’s yard, and not during walks. It can’t jump or bark, except as an alert to danger. The docile nature stressed in guide dogs has a downside however: Last year, a Seeing Eye volunteer and his puppy were attacked and injured by another dog.
Williams has been a pet-lover her whole life. She cared for her family’s cats when she was young, and got a snake at 9. But three years ago, when she begged her parents for a dog, they offered her the option of helping the Seeing Eye. “You commit to raising a dog,” she says, “just not forever.”
Williams and her parents, Marjorie and Douglas, spend about a year and a half raising each puppy. In addition to basic training, often done in a group class with other puppy families, they introduce the dogs to many of the situations they will encounter as guide dogs. This past Saturday, Williams and Specs, the yellow Lab she is now fostering, marched in the Saint Patrick’s Day parade in Morristown. Specs, who is easy to spot in his green Seeing Eye vest, has also been to a Devil’s game, the Liberty Science Center, a nursing home and plenty of walks around Verona. The Seeing Eye takes care of veterinary costs, the puppy crate (all dogs are crate-trained) and some food costs.
But eventually it comes time for the dog to be returned to the Seeing Eye for his formal guide dog training. Vadin, the black lab that was Williams’ first assignment, is now living in Texas, and she occasionally gets letters about how he is doing. If a dog washes out of the program, as Williams’ second dog, a German shepherd named Wendy, recently did, it is considered for other companion activities or the puppy-raising family is given an opportunity to adopt it. Specs will go back to the Seeing Eye this summer.
Williams doesn’t yet know how her work with the Seeing Eye will figure into her college plans. But she notes that the organization has an arrangement with Rutgers that could allow her to continue to foster dogs there.
“It definitely is hard to give up the dogs,” Williams says. “But it teaches you how to give up something you love.”
Here’s a slideshow of Laura Williams’ Seeing Eye dogs. Note that she can legitimately claim that the dog ate her homework. If you want to foster a Seeing Eye puppy, you can learn more about the program here.