Bennington boy raises puppy to become service dog for the blind

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DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- From the time Flynn was 8 weeks old, Rowan Schatz raised him as his own dog. The 13-year-old took Flynn for regular walks, worked alongside him during obedience training, and loved him like every boy loves his dog.

Flynn is not your typical black labrador -- he has a greater calling. When Flynn turned one and a half years old it was time for him to leave Rowan begin the next stage of his life.

Rowan knew from the start that Flynn would only be his for a short time, but the bond they shared made it difficult to part when Flynn entered formal training to become a guide dog for the blind in January.

"With letting Flynn go, it was really heartbreaking. But I knew he was going to do something good," said the Bennington boy.

Sadness was just one of the emotions felt by Rowan -- and hundreds of volunteers before him who have raised dogs for Guiding Eyes for the Blind -- as his puppy-raising responsibility concluded. There were also tremendous feelings of pride and happiness knowing Flynn will someday mean even more to somebody else. He will be the eyes a person doesn't have.

"I was really proud of him," Rowan said.

Flynn is the third dog the Schatz family has raised from 8 weeks old to about 16 months for Guiding Eyes, a nonprofit organization based in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Flynn was the first dog young Rowan took the primary responsibility for raising and training.

Raising a dog for Guiding Eyes is similar to raising a dog in any household, with a few additional rules such as keeping them off furniture or prohibiting their eating scraps from the dinner table. The dogs are also incorporated in more activities outside of the home. Guiding Eyes dogs are expected to be introduced to three to five new socializations or experiences each week -- whether it be vising playgrounds, city streets or businesses.

"Wherever we go, they really have to be exposed to those things," said Rowan's mother, Tara Schatz.

Because seeing eye dogs are not supposed to be petted while they are working, one of the biggest challenges is telling people they cannot walk up to the dog and pet it.

"It's hard to get people not to walk up and just pet the dogs," Rowan said. "You've just got to be firm with them ... (by saying) I'm raising this dog to be a guide dog and I'm socializing it and right now he's working so you can't pet him."

The process to raise and train a seeing eye dog is a long one that begins at birth and follows a specific program. Guiding Eyes is one of the few organizations with its own breeding colony -- with about half of the dogs bred eventually becoming seeing eye dogs. Socialization begins with the puppies almost immediately upon birth so they may begin forming the important human-dog relationship that is the foundation for guide dogs.

At 8 weeks old, the puppies are tested to see how they react to different stimulations such as noises and movements. Dogs that react well are then given to volunteer "puppy raisers" such as Rowan, with whom the dogs will stay until they are about a year and a half old. The dogs who do not pass the test get adopted as pets or enter other service careers, said Rachel Silverman, the region manager of the puppy raising program.

The volunteer raisers are supported by Guiding Eyes throughout the process, which includes training classes twice a month and free vet care.

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When it is time for the dog to return to Guiding Eyes, generally after 14 to 16 months with the raisers, they are tested again.

"The purpose for that test, similar to the puppy test, is to assess which dogs have the right temperament to go into training and which dogs would be happier doing something different," Silverman said. "It's done to be kind to the dogs. We wouldn't want to do something that would continually be stressful to the dog or something the dog wouldn't be happy doing."

The dogs that pass that test, as Flynn has, undergo more intense training that the quickest learners complete in five to six months. As Flynn progresses through the training, Rowan receives regular e-mails updating him how Flynn is doing.

The final test required of every dog to graduate from training is to guide a blindfolded trainer through a city.

"Once they pass that final evaluation, we basically start looking for a potential match," Silverman said, adding that dogs have been placed in countries across the world.

When a match is found, the pair train together at the Guiding Eyes headquarters for a month. After that, it is up to the blind individual whether there will be any communication with the raisers.

The Schatz family does not have contact with the owners of either of the first two dogs they raised; however, they know where the dogs are and a little bit about the people who the dogs are helping.

"I'm dying to find someone who would want to keep in touch. I do respect the fact that they don't want to as well ... but I'm hoping Flynn will go to someone who wants to maintain a relationship with us," Tara Schatz said.

Schatz has always loved dogs and has owned dogs much of her life. Of course, raising dogs is a lot of work and usually requires a commitment of more than a decade. The shorter commitment to raise dogs for Guiding Eyes is one of the things Schatz enjoys about the opportunity because her family may still enjoy the benefits of raising dogs, but they also have time between dogs to be free of the responsibility.

"We're only on for a year and a half. Then we can take a break and travel and do everything that we want to do, and then we get another puppy. So this is our break to not have a dog this summer, so we're going to travel cross country and then in August we'll get our next puppy," Schatz said.

The Schatz family are the only Guiding Eyes volunteers in Bennington. There is a larger community of volunteers in the Albany area, but Guiding Eyes is hoping to attract more volunteers in Southern Vermont. Schatz said she'd welcome more local volunteers that her family could collaborate with and share experiences with as well.

In addition to the satisfaction of knowing they are helping improve the life of another person, Rowan said the experience of teaching a dog is rewarding in itself.

"I do like seeing the puppy learn. It's really a nice experience seeing them adapting to their environment," Rowan said.

Rowan's mother said she has seen her son grow through his experience with Flynn as well. Not only has he learned lessons of responsibility and kindness, but he also became more outgoing and comfortable talking with people when he was out walking Flynn.

"People come up to you all the time and you have to learn how to have a conversation and be an ambassador, I would say, for this organization," his mother said.

Since being founded in 1954, Guiding Eyes has graduated more than 7,000 guide dog teams. To learn more about Guiding Eyes or becoming a volunteer puppy raiser, visit www.guidingeyes.org.

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at draspuzzi@benningtonbanner.com or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi


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