Guiding Eyes gives puppies a purpose

The organization has four trainers in the Bennington area, and is looking for more

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BENNINGTON — What could possibly be better than raising a puppy?

To Tara Schatz, it's giving back, all while raising a dog that will someday become someone's best friend and helper.

Schatz, who has lived in Bennington for 12 years, is the regional coordinator and volunteer for the Vermont chapter of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a nonprofit organization that provides well-trained dogs to individuals across the country with vision loss. She is currently raising her ninth puppy through the organization.

A class for brand-new puppy raisers will begin Feb. 28 at the West Mountain Animal Hospital, and Schatz is looking to get the word out. So far, there are four Guiding Eyes puppy-raisers in the Bennington area.

"We're always looking for more," Schatz said.

The classes for this specific region used to be located in the capital region of New York — not Vermont — so puppy raisers like Schatz had to travel over an hour twice a month to attend training classes in Colonie.

"It's the region that moved here, not me," Schatz said.

Guiding Eyes

Since it was founded in 1954, Guiding Eyes has graduated more than 7,000 guide dog teams.

The organization has 500 puppy raisers across the eastern seaboard as far south as North Carolina and as far west as Ohio. The only region in Vermont is right here in Bennington, and puppies Harry and Gatsby — in training by Schatz and fellow puppy raiser Sue Altland — are some of the first to go through the program in the new region.

Altland's 14-month-old Harry is a black lab, while Schatz's nine-month-old Gatsby is a German shepherd; the fourth Schatz has raised.

Ninety-two percent of the Guiding Eyes dogs are Labrador retrievers, while 8 percent are German shepherds.

"Shepherds are considered the Mercedes of the Guiding Eyes," Schatz said. "They're harder to work with, but once you get one that's well trained, they are very high-performance."

In contrast, Labradors are like a Ford, Schatz said.

"They're very reliable, easy to train, and a lot of people find they're easy to work with, especially puppy raisers," she said.

Shepherds have been growing in popularity, and Schatz believes this may be because people feel safer with them.

"People will see you working with a lab and they'll still go up to the dog; whereas with a shepherd they're more likely not to approach them," said Atland.

Classes

A Guiding Eyes employee attends the classes twice a month to teach puppy trainers. This person is the only paid employee that works in the region; the rest are volunteers.

While the classes are currently held at the local animal hospital Thursday evenings, Schatz is also seeking a larger free or low-cost space to host the classes since the group is outgrowing its current space. The space should be a large, open room in Bennington or "very close," said Schatz, and it would ideally have a washroom.

Obedience training is a large part of these classes.

Puppies also learn house manners: staying off furniture, not stealing food.

"And no attacking the cat," Schatz laughed, as Gatsby eyed house cat Atticus, who had sauntered over for attention.

The classes also teach socialization, which is extremely important for dogs who will be accompanying their owners everywhere. To help train the puppies, handlers make a point to expose the dogs to numerous public situations.

"Local businesses have been really good about letting us come in," Schatz said. "We go to Hannaford, Home Depot, the library ..."

"Soccer games, you name it," Atland said.

It's up to the trainer whether people can approach the puppies and pet them.

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"Some dogs can handle saying 'hi' to people, some dogs cannot," Schatz said. "I usually let people pet them as long as they ask, and [as long as] the dogs are being calm."

The puppies are trained rigorously, but also get to enjoy the simple puppy life.

"I'd say they are dogs 80 percent of the time; just pets," Schatz said.

"And you have to learn to work with these personalities," she said. "Some dogs are way higher energy; some dogs like people more, some dogs are really distracted by other dogs. And they also have fears they need to work through."

Schatz has learned that trainers need to work with the dog and not against it, accepting its way of learning. Once she realized this, her training became easier.

"The first dog was hard," she admitted.

Training also includes lots of positive reinforcement, like treats, but also relationship-based training like building trust.

"The more of a relationship you have [with the dog] the more confident they'll be," she said.

To become a Guiding Eyes trainer, one must first fill out an application. If this is accepted, six hours of training must be completed before receiving a puppy. Pre-placement classes happen twice a year, the first coming up later this month.

Trainers typically receive the dog when it is 8 weeks old, and train it for a year to a year and a half. Guiding Eyes assesses how the dog is learning and determines whether it is ready to become someone's new helper.

Devoted to dogs

It all started when Schatz saw 1984 Disney movie "Love Leads the Way," about one of the first American users of a seeing eye dog.

She always knew in the back of her mind that she would like to train a seeing eye dog but she didn't act on it until 2007.

"I always in the back of my head wanted to do it," she said. "Then I saw a flier [for Guiding Eyes] and it all fell into place."

Altland says her kids always wanted a dog. Eventually, she caved and began her journey with Guiding Eyes.

"I figured this was a good way to have a pet, but also do some good and give back," she said.

While being a trainer comes with a hard part — giving up the dog once it is ready to go to someone who needs it — trainers are prepared for this bittersweet day.

"People always say, `How do you do it? How do you give them away?' but you kind of know it's not your dog." Altland said.

"I definitely cry," Schatz said. "That's why I always keep getting more puppies."

After dogs retire at an average of 10 years, they are offered as pets to their owner or their owner's family. If they are unable to take the dog in as a pet, the dog is offered back to its original trainer.

Much like humans, some puppies realize they may be suited better to another career during their Guiding Eyes training. Schatz once raised a puppy that instead became a drug and bomb detection dog for Connecticut law enforcement.

Schatz was thrilled when one of her former puppies, Nacho, accompanied his owner to the Northshire Bookstore where she went on a book tour. Here, Schatz and Nacho were reunited.

"It was very special," she said.

Atland has received grateful letters from some of her trainee's new owners. One she shared was from a teenage girl who received the first dog Altland's family raised, Vigo.

"Thank you from the bottom of my heart for loving my V when I did not know him yet," reads part the letter in part. "Thank you from the bottom of my heart for teaching him not to chew up my shoes. I really like my shoes hole-free."

The girl, who just began her freshman year in college with Vigo, described Vigo in the letter to Altland as "the sunshine of my world."

Those interested in becoming a Guiding Eyes trainer can contact Schatz at thewordhermit@gmail.com.

Christie Wisniewski can be reached at cwisniewski@benningtonbanner.com and at 802-447-7567, ext. 111.


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