Hudsonites volunteer with Guiding Eyes for the Blind

by Stephanie FellensteinPhotos by Amanda Woolf Published:

There's just something about a dog's smile.

The furry sides of his mouth curve up into a grin that reaches all the way to his eyes. And don't forget about the pink tongue that flops out to one side making anyone close by grin too.

It is amazingly quiet at Sue L'Hommedieu's house despite the three grinning lab puppies in her driveway.

But these aren't just any puppies. They are part of the Guiding Eyes for the Blind puppy program. Guiding Eyes breeds and trains guide and service dogs that are then paired with blind or visually impaired men and women. Some of the dogs join the Heeling Autism program and become companions for children on the autism spectrum or others are used in the breeding program or for law enforcement.

Guiding Eyes makes sure to find the best fit for each individual dog.

So how does a program headquartered in Yorktown Heights, NY tie in to Hudson?

Just ask the three Hudson families raising puppies for Guiding Eyes. L'Hommedieu has Pearl, a 9-month-old black lab. Jim and Susan Newman are raising Schubert a 1-year-old black lab, and Jeannie Neary is working with Kalani, a 7-month-old yellow lab.

The majority of the dogs in the program are Labrador Retrievers -- 92 percent, according to Guiding Eyes.

"I saw an ad in the paper for puppy raisers," L'Hommedieu says. After some training, she started as a babysitter, someone who watches other Guiding Eyes volunteers' puppies. "It was so fun that I wanted to do it on my own."

The Newmans also saw an ad in the paper and Neary found out about the program from L'Hommedieu, her neighbor.

But even before she heard about the program, Neary was inspired by a Holocaust survivor she met years ago during her nursing career.

"He was blind and had a guide dog who he said opened his world," she says. "I was so moved by this man that when Sue told me about the program, I knew I wanted to do it."

The Newmans, who have a 12-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son, were looking to do some volunteer work.

"We wanted our kids to do some type of service," Susan Newman says. "This is something we could do as a family. The kids come to all the classes with us."

The Newmans, who both work at Hawken School, first talked to the school to make sure they could take Schubert -- who turned 1 on June 26 -- to school with them. Once they got the school's approval, they were in.

"There is no set formula," L'Hommedieu says. "People can have full-time jobs, kids or they can be college students. They try to match the personality of the puppy with the volunteer."

Puppy raisers can even have dogs of their own, cats or other pets.

"The dogs adapt," Neary says.

Susan adds, "Some people are even co-raising a puppy with another family. One family will have the dog for a week and then they switch."

The training process begins when the puppies are eight weeks old. Volunteer puppy raisers, like the Hudsonites, pick up their new companion and spend the next 18 months playing and learning. They do everything together -- go to the grocery store, work, school and even the mall.

"It is a little challenging until you get in a routine," L'Hommedieu says.

Guiding Eyes offers plenty of support. "There are trainers available and veterinarians to answer questions," she says. "All veterinarian costs are covered by the organization. We are responsible for food and toys."

In response, Schubert eyes the treats coming out of Jim Newman's pocket.

All puppies are already named when the puppy raisers get them.

They are named alphabetically and Jim Newman explains that each litter mate's name begins with the same letter. Take Schubert for example. His ID is 8SS13. He is the eighth puppy born in the second "S" litter in 2013. Some of his siblings are Sanford, Sol, Sara and Schyler.

All three Hudson families are first-time Guiding Eyes puppy raisers.

Before the puppies arrive, the volunteers are in class themselves for training. The Hudsonites are part of the Cleveland West group that meets each week in Berea. There is also a Cleveland East branch that meets in Chardon.

Other groups can be found along the East Coast from North Carolina to Maine.

The classes meet each week when the puppies are young and then eventually taper off to every other week.

"They group the puppies by age," Neary says.

Puppy raisers are charged with teaching the dogs basic commands -- both voice and hand signals. They train them how to live in a family, walk on a leash and other basic behaviors like learning to eliminate on command. Puppies are exposed to all types of experiences -- riding in a car, going to stores and schools.

The classes also include unique training experiences.

"They had a motorized parade and they walked by throwing candy," Neary says.The training is all about positive reinforcement.

"We use food and praise when they're doing well," L'Hommedieu says, adding they don't reprimand the dogs or use the word "no." "Our job is to train them on good house manners and teach them not to pick up stuff of the ground."

She demonstrates with her 9-month-old puppy Pearl and a treat. Pearl lies down about two feet away from L'Hommedieu who then drops a treat on the ground. Pearl doesn't move. She looks from the treat to L'Hommedieu who picks it back up and explains why this lesson is so important.

"We don't give them a treat that fell on the ground either," she says. "What if a blind person knocked over their pill bottles and everything spilled on the floor. You don't want the dogs picking stuff up off the ground."

The puppies do get distracted, especially when there are other puppies around.

Neary walks Kalani around the perimeter of the yard and after a moment the puppy forgets about the other dogs and trots along calmly. At seven months, she is the youngest pup in the group.

"We practice the three "D"s," L'Hommedieu explains. "Distraction, distance and duration. Did you see how Jeannie put distance between Kalani and the other dogs and then Kalani calmed right down?"

Neary says they do daily outings to get the dogs used to crowds, automatic doors and strange sounds.

"We've been to Dick's Sporting Goods and Brueggers recently," she says, adding that with a 7-month-old puppy it was a quick trip to Breuggers. "She did really well."

The dogs are all tagged by the State of Ohio and the puppy raisers explain to store and restaurant managers about the program when they take their dogs out and about.

"Schubert went to Beachwood Place the other day," Susan Newman says. "He did great. We had him in the dressing rooms and at the food court."

Since Schubert spends a lot of time at Hawken, he has also experienced fire drills, basketball games and lacrosse tournaments.

It is a big committment to raise a puppy, but all three Hudson families say it is worth it.

"There is heartache involved for sure," Susan Newman says thinking ahead to the day Schubert leaves. "But hopefully this is going to change someone's life."

Once puppy raising 101 is finished, the pups return to the New York headquarters for six months of harness training when they are about 18 months old.

They are constantly evaluated while with the puppy raisers and when they get to harness training.

"Sometimes dogs just don't enjoy the harness or they may be prone to health issues like ear infections," L'Hommedieu explains.

But that's OK. If a puppy is not destined to be a guide dog, they may be a good fit for the Heeling Autism branch of Guiding Eyes. This program provides service dogs to children with Autism. According to information from Guiding Eyes, children in the Heeling Autism program wear a safety belt that is attached to the dog's vest. If a child runs off, the dog becomes an "anchor" to keep them out of dangerous situations.

Some dogs are used for law enforcement and occasionally dogs are just not meant to be service dogs and are released from the program. They can then be adopted as a family pet.

"We are always asking ourselves if we're doing a good enough job," Jim Newman says. "He's a really sweet dog."

Once a dog finishes harness training and is clearly ready to be a guide dog, it is matched with a new friend. The dog and friend spend three weeks together in training before they head home.

Guiding Eyes for the Blind is an international program. Schubert, Pearl and Kalani could potentially end up in Europe or anywhere in the world.

"I love doing this," Neary says. "It's more teaching the trainer than the dogs. They're smart enough already."

The Newmans agree.

"We would definitely do this again," Jim says. "It is so rewarding. We have such a deep connection with him because he goes everywhere with us. It's exciting to see his growth and maturity."

After each lesson and class, the dogs take off their vests and leashes and spend some time just being puppies. They grab onto a blue rubber toy and race around L'Hommedieu's backyard.

From training to playing, one thing never changes. Their furry mouths still curve up into a grin that reaches all the way to their eyes. Their pink tongues flap out to the side as they race by.

There's just something about a dog's smile.v

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