Eyesight is something that is easily taken for granted in a society where most people are always in a rush. Few even venture to think about what it would be like to someday not be able to see at all.
For individuals who are blind, this is a reality they must face every day. One Quinnipiac student has been making a difference in the lives of the blind for years.
Kat Swift, a senior Entry-Level Masters Physician Assistant student, grew up in a family where helping others is considered very important. Her family has been raising seeing eye dogs for the organization, Guiding Eyes for the Blind (GEB), for 11 years.
“We love dogs and are always looking for a community service project,” Swift said. “It was perfect because we could use our expertise training dogs to help other people.”
Swift’s family is known as a volunteer puppy raiser. They successfully raised 12 dogs already and are now working on No. 13 at their home in Rochester, N.Y.
Before becoming a volunteer puppy raiser, an individual or family must complete a lengthy application process. The potential raiser must also undergo a home interview to make sure that the puppy will be well cared for and will be living in a stable environment.
Once approved by the GEB, the family is given an 8-week-old puppy to raise and train. The typical breed used by Guiding Eyes is the Labrador Retriever. Occasionally, Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds are used.
When working as a puppy raiser, the main goal is to train a dog and teach it to socialize so that it is best able to help the blind navigate.
Puppy raisers attend classes with their puppies that are run by the GEB. They also take the puppies on many social outings so that the dog will learn to be calm in any situation.
Socialization is one of the key factors in whether or not a puppy will be a successful seeing eye dog.
“We take our puppies everywhere with us starting at a very young age,” Swift said. “I take it to the mall, church, restaurants, the park and baseball games. In high school, I would take my puppy to class with me for the day.”
The dogs that make it as seeing eye dogs have to be very special. Not every dog is able to pass the rigorous tests that the dogs are put through to ensure their capabilities.
“The puppies given to us to raise are bred specially by GEB for various traits such as resilience, courage, social skills, good medical record and leadership,” Swift said. “These dogs have very special qualities that we say they are born with. Qualities to give blind people their lives back.”
Another positive aspect about the program is that the dog is always ensured a loving home. If, by chance, the dog does not pass GEB’s tests, the family that raised it has the first choice of adopting the dog as a permanent member of the family.
If the dog does pass the required tests it goes into training. The dog is then paired with a blind partner and the team goes through a month of training at the Guiding Eyes establishment. After that month, the team graduates.
“The ceremony is one of the best parts of the whole experience,” Swift said. “The raisers get to meet the new team, and a team photo is given to the raisers. Everyone goes through at least one box of tissues.”
According to Swift, one of the most difficult parts of the puppy-raising job is giving the dogs back after 18 months of raising them.
“Being with a puppy non-stop for a year and a half, you get attached,” she said. “My mentality is that my puppy is going on to bigger and better things; he’s going to help someone. I start that mentality right in the beginning, knowing that I’m raising the puppy to help someone else.”
The sadness is usually short-lived however.
“As soon as you give your puppy back to Guiding Eyes, you get another little 8-week old puppy to teach and love,” she added.
Swift plans to continue her passion for raising these special dogs once she graduates in May. She will be attending graduate school at Quinnipiac and is already speaking with GEB volunteers about taking in a puppy in June.
“I have always known I would raise guide dogs,” Swift said. “I love them and my life would be less complete without the experience they have given me.”