4-H kids’ puppies become eyes for the blind

By TOM KANE

MILFORD, PA — Three young golden Labrador retrievers and one small black Labrador puppy stole the hearts of all at the Pike County Commissioners’ last meeting of the year.

The occasion was a presentation by a local 4-H club called Paw Partners that enlists kids to raise puppies for The Seeing Eye, a national programs that gives seeing-eye dogs to blind people.

The three bigger Labs behaved admirably but the tiny guy’s antics raised smiles and laughs all around.

The worst part of the program, which enlists students from the Delaware Valley Schools, is that the 4-H kids and their families have to give up the puppy after a year and a half.

“We’re saying goodbye to these three golden Labs who have been raised by our members and their families,” said 4-H Educator Diane Appel. “It’s a heart-rending time for them to give up puppies that they have learned to love.”

The only consolation to the students and their families is that the puppies will better the lives of blind people and give them a mobility that they wouldn’t have without the dog.

“It’s a consolation—but it still hurts,” Appel said.

4-H offers training and help

The club, which is sponsored by the Penn State Cooperative Extension in Pike County, provides a 4-H educator—Appel—and a puppy educator, Vivian Schoeller.

Students can join 4-H and this program when they become seven years old. The group also allows adults to join.

“The club helps the students to train their puppies in things like obedience, house manners—not sitting on sofas or chewing things—eating only dog food and not people food, riding in a car on the floor, walking on the street on a leash and getting used to crowds,” Appel said.

“This is very much a family project, but the student is the principal trainer of the dog,” Appel said.

During the summer, the club meets at the Milford Borough building in Milford and in the winter meets at the Blooming Grove Fire House.

“Currently, we have three puppies in training, having just returned three to the center last week and three more this week, ” Appel said. “ A family is now waiting to get their puppy any day now.”

The dogs are bred at the center and are retuned there after reaching an age of one year and a half, she said.

Seeing Eye helps 4-H

Each year, approximately 500 puppies are born at the Seeing Eye breeding station in Chester, NJ, outside of Morristown, NJ for groups all around the country and Canada. Breeds include German shepherds, Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers, according to Jill Jaycox of the Seeing Eye Center.

Basic behavior skills prepare the puppy for more formal training that is done at Seeing Eye. After four months of training at the center, the dog is matched with a blind person who then lives in the center for one month, learning to bond with the dog.

“This is done at minimal cost to the blind person,” said Jaycox, who is the contact between the center and the club. There is no cost to the 4-H families who must provide veterinary services for their puppy.

Monthly puppy club meetings provide another learning forum for puppies and their families. Puppy raisers follow a specific training curriculum that ensures all Seeing Eye puppies have received the same preparation. Clubs are organized on the county level through the 4-H program.

The Seeing Eye, which was originally founded in 1929, has had a partnership with the Pike 4-H since 1942.

“Since 1929, Seeing Eye has made 14,200 matches between the blind person and their dog,” Jaycox said. “Our center in Morristown now has 1,800 blind persons who have graduated from our program.”

The program is totally dependent on volunteers and its organizers are anxious for more volunteers to step forward. “This program does a wonderful service for blind people because the dogs learn basic skills in a real home and not in a kennel,” Jaycox said.

“Perhaps the most important part of raising a Seeing Eye puppy is providing lots of love, attention, and encouragement for the puppy, which forms the foundation for the dog’s formal training as a Seeing Eye dog,” she said.

Volunteers are needed

Anyone wishing to volunteer to raise a puppy for the Seeing Eye can learn more about the program on The Seeing Eye website: seeingeye.org. They can also contact the center by email on puppyraisers@seeingeye.org, or by phone at 973/539-4425.

TRR photo by Tom Kane
Puppies and their trainers met the Pike County commissioners. They are from left, Diane Appel with Eldora, Michael Klosterman with Dagmar, Jenny Carey with Darlene and Kaitlyn Carey with Forest. (Click for larger version)