For many people the thought of raising a puppy to adulthood only to then give him or her up to another person is probably difficult to fathom.
Fortunately that’s not the case for a dedicated group of Saucon Valley residents who are volunteer puppy trainers for The Seeing Eye, a philanthropic organization that provides Seeing Eye dogs to blind people.
Founded in 1929 and now based in Morris Township, N.J., The Seeing Eye’s mission is to enhance the independence, dignity and self-confidence of blind people through the use of their specially-trained dogs; dogs that are reared by an army of caring volunteers in New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania.
“Our dogs go all over the world,” said Shannon Rager, the Seeing Eye’s local volunteer coordinator.
Each volunteer receives their puppy at seven weeks old and raises him until he’s 12 to 15 months old, when he must enter a rigorous training program before passing a “final walk” volunteers are allowed to watch from a distance.
During the time a dog is being raised, rules must be followed by the puppy raising family to ensure that he or she will become a disciplined guide dog.
For example, said puppy raiser Debbie Wolst, Seeing Eye puppies cannot have snacks or sleep with their foster families.
“Their perk is they get to go everywhere with us,” said Rager, who commented that Hellertown “is probably the most friendly town” she’s ever encountered when it comes to allowing Seeing Eye dogs access to areas where dogs aren’t normally allowed.
Since Seeing Eye puppies are part of a training program, the owners of businesses and other places that may be off-limits to pets–such as rental units–aren’t required to allow them to enter or live in them under the Americans With Disablities Act (ADA).
“We have to ask permission everywhere we go,” said Rager.
Educating people encountered in day-to-day life about how to behave around service animals is also the responsibility of the foster family.
If a dog is wearing a special Seeing Eye dog vest that denotes his trainee status, you should never go up and pet, make faces at or talk to him.
“You never go up and just pet a dog,” Rager said. “It’s extremely distracting and it can break the dog’s concentration.”
Seeing Eye dogs aren’t in training all the time and when their vests are off “they do get to be just regular dogs,” she explained.
Brooke Riefenstahl, a senior at Saucon Valley High School whose family is currently fostering Viking for the Seeing Eye program, said it’s been rewarding to be able to see the dogs’ progress as they learn the skills they’ll use to make a difference in the life of a visually impaired person.
Brooke and her sister Kiele have brought Viking to school as part of his training, their mom Jill said.
It can be hard not to fall in love with the dog you’re assigned to raise, she acknowledged, but a big reward is knowing that all the hard work and love will ultimately help someone else be more independent.
Once a dog becomes a Seeing Eye dog, the family that fostered him as a puppy receives a bit of information about his placement, which is kept anonymous to help protect the privacy of his new owner.
“It definitely is a wonderful program,” said Wolst, who’s been a Seeing Eye puppy trainer for three years and currently fosters Jax and Rex with her husband Bernie. “I’m so glad I got into it.”
In her case, Wolst said she was inspired to become a puppy raiser by a church sermon.
Patricia Siemiontkowski, who has Simba, said she decided to be a trainer once she retired after encountering a Seeing Eye puppy while on vacation at the Jersey Shore several years ago.
“I thought, ‘Wow, what a wonderful thing,'” she said.
As a new volunteer, Siemiontkowski said she had to attend “puppy meetings” before getting Simba, and she also refers to a training manual all fosterers receive.
To help cover the cost of raising a puppy, each Seeing Eye volunteer receives a quarterly stipend that offsets the cost of food and covers all veterinary bills.
Not all dogs ultimately have what it takes to join the ranks of Seeing Eye dogs, and in those cases they are offered for adoption to the foster families.
If they don’t want to or can’t adopt the dog, they are adopted by another family or sometimes become K-9 dogs, Rager said.
If you’re interested in becoming a Seeing Eye puppy raiser, Rager can be reached at 862-246-5889. Additional information about the program can also be found on the Seeing Eye website, where you can also make a donation to the organization.
“We do a lot of community events,” Rager noted, including presentations at area schools and nursing homes.
The visits help to raise awareness of the Seeing Eye program, and also benefit the dogs by exposing them to new groups of people.