By Linda Conlin, Pro to Pro Managing Editor
My college alumni magazine always has stories about graduates who have interesting and sometimes unusual careers, but the story in a recent issue made me take a closer look. This story was about Ben Cawley, Director of Training for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a nonprofit organization that provides trained dogs to the blind and visually impaired. I had to learn more.
Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, New York, was founded in 1954. The organization matches approximately 170 dogs per year to people with vision loss across the U.S. and Canada at no cost to the recipient. Guiding Eyes supports the dog and recipient throughout the dog’s service until its “retirement.” The cost to breed, raise, train, and match a dog to its new owner is from $50,000 to $100,000 per dog, a huge undertaking for an organization that is funded solely by voluntary contributions.
Ninety-two percent of the dogs are Labrador retrievers and 8% are German shepherds. They are dogs that exhibit the desirable traits of confidence, enjoying the challenge of work, staying calm in all environments, low levels of distraction, and good socialization. Training begins with specially bred puppies soon after they are weaned and culminates with six to twelve months of formal training when they are 18 months old. Each dog works at its own pace learning to avoid obstacles, becoming comfortable in a variety of environments and terrains, taking initiative, and exhibiting “intelligent disobedience.” That is, the dog will ignore a command if it perceives a danger to the handler, such as ignoring a command to go forward if a car is approaching.
Guide dog recipients need training, too. “Students” participate in a three-week immersive program to learn to work with and care for the dogs in real-life settings. The ‘final exam’ for the teams is a trip to New York City that includes travel by bus, subway and train as well as navigating the city’s fast-paced crowds. Training culminates in a ‘graduation’ for the dogs and their new owners when they begin their new journey together. Ben Cawley summed up the rewards of the program when he said, “My favorite part of working here, hands down, is the day we are able to give the gift of these dogs … Just to experience that joy. It’s like Christmas morning.”
For more information on low vision, its symptoms, causes and remedial devices, check out our CE, An Introduction to Low Vision, at 2020mag.com/ce.