Guiding Eyes for the Blind Canine Development Center Campus Entrance

Guiding Eyes for the Blind – An Inside Look – Part 1

Nestled in the hillside along NY 164 in Patterson, NY is Guiding Eyes for the Blind’s Canine Development Center (CDC). Don’t blink or you might miss it; I did. Modest as it is from the road, what goes on inside is magnificent. The CDC is where the journey of all Guiding Eyes guide and autism service dogs begins.

Since my wife and I began volunteering for Guiding Eyes Eastern Massachusetts Puppy Raising Region in 2008, we have had the pleasure to work with numerous pups, many of whom went on to life-altering service careers. But where do these pups come from? We had the opportunity for a brief visit to the CDC when the pup we raised graduated as a guide in 2011. The visit whet my appetite to learn more and perhaps return someday with a camera. Inspired by photographer/educators Lauren Lim, Rob Lim, and Stephanie Simpson and buoyed by support from family, friends, clients, and the greater Guiding Eyes community, the Photography Concentrate Explorers Club Scholarship afforded me this opportunity. For an animal and dog lover, it’s been a bit like finding a golden Wonka ticket.

Guiding Eyes for the Blind is an internationally accredited, nonprofit guide dog school with a long-standing reputation for producing some of the finest service dogs in the world. The process from pup to guide is fantastically intricate and begins at the CDC. Central to CDC operations are the whelping and breeding kennels. The breeding kennel is part honeymoon retreat, part science and research lab, and part air traffic control center. The whelping kennel is part nursery and part elite fitness center, complete with training “gym” and a sizable team of masseuses…no kidding! Together the breeding and whelping kennels, in concert with an on-site vet hospital, are responsible for breeding, birthing, early-socialization, screening, and placement of high-potential pups into one of thirty-six satellite volunteer puppy raising regions.

This first of three posts will focus on the whelping kennel. What follows are a few images from my visit, a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the fascinating world of Guiding Eyes.

The first thing that strikes you upon entering the whelping kennel is ALL THE PUPS. Go figure. Piles of them, literally. On average, the whelping kennel houses seven litters monthly. Broods with their litters live in large, open-top pens with areas for sleeping, eating, play, and even for mom to get a away from her pups for a little R&R when desired. The second thing that strikes you is how clean and organized everything is. As anyone who has had a labrador in their home can attest, furballs from these shedders are inevitable as are the myriad of play-things that trail in their wake. The recently renovated whelping kennel’s careful tailoring to function – birthing and the health and comfort of all dogs – shows. As does the staffs sixty-one odd years experience and the great care they have for the dogs and their work. This is one well oiled machine.

A quick sanitizing dip for my camera gear (there is a first time for everything) and in we go.

Guiding Eyes brood Florida's whelping kennel name tag.

No detail is missed. Every brood gets a wonderfully personalized name tag for their pen. In the background, brood Florida and her pups keep toasty warm under a heat lamp.

Guiding Eyes brood sleeps in whelping kennel.

Guiding Eyes brood, yellow labrador Vinca, and her six yellow pups strewn out in the whelping kennel, shadows cast by raking light.

Brood Vinca with her pups Ida, Iowa, Ira, Imari, India, and Island strewn out for a nap. Young pups sleep between 15 and 20 hours a day, making the whelping kennel a wonderfully serene and calming place to spend an afternoon making photographs.

Guiding Eyes pups sleeping.


Guiding Eyes pups curled up sleeping in a feed tub.

Pups from the Bronte/Dougal “F” litter sleep curled up in a repurposed feed tub. I challenge you not to want to climb in.

A pile of ten Guiding Eyes black lab puppies.

The Felicity/Gable “E” litter in a pile. Guiding Eyes breeds for temperament and health not for appearance. The sun must have been behind the moon when this litter of ten was born – all black. Litters are named in alphabetical order over the course of each year, with all pup names in a particular litter sharing the same first letter. And no two dogs – pup or working guide – sharing the same name. Here we have Egypt, Elaine, Eva, Erin, Estelle, Edwin, Eben, Enid, Ezra, Enya.

Two day old Guiding Eyes pup curls up to their moms paws.

A pup from the “N” litter, two days young, curls up to mom Alicia’s paws.

Fundamental to the success of a guide team is a strong bond between dog and handler. The seeds for this bond are sown early at the CDC. Well before pups open their eyes and ears at two and three weeks of age, a dedicated team of volunteers begins a daily regimen of puppy massage. The massage serves both to build trust between pups and a variety of handlers and acclimate pups to regular body handling. Due to the tactile nature of service work for a blind or visually impaired partner, it is critical dogs have a high level of comfort with being touched from paw to withers, nose to tail. The early positive reinforcement helps ensure this. I would argue the role of puppy masseuse at Guiding Eyes is one of the greatest volunteer gigs on the planet.

Volunteer holds black and tan Guiding Eyes pup.

This pup looks like a Rottweiler but is not. It is a black and tan labrador, the result of a recessive gene present in both parents. Highly sought after among volunteer raisers for their rarity but in no way different from their solid color counterparts insofar as the confidence and conformation required to become a great guide.

A young Guiding Eyes black lab pup in the palm of a volunteers hands.

Guiding Eyes yellow lab pup being massaged on the face.

The massage is very purposeful. Here a volunteer works gently with her fingertips in a circular motion on this pup’s snout, gums, and head.

Volunteer sits in Guiding Eyes whelping kennel with brood Adria and her three pups.

A bit of an outtake. My photo assistant for the day got “stuck” trying to wiggle her way out of the back corner in brood Adria’s pen to grab me another lens. Labs being labs coupled with Guiding Eyes deep reinforcement of touch, the pups seek out contact. Admittedly, I’m not sure Ellora tried particularly hard to escape entrapment. The heat lamps must have slowed her reaction times.

Guiding Eyes volunteer in blue shirt does puppy massage on  yellow lab.

Guiding Eyes volunteer with brood Vinca and pup.

Brood Vinca keeps a close eye on volunteer Judy’s massage technique.

Guiding Eyes brood Vinca sniffs her pup in volunteers hands.

Guiding Eyes volunteer with brood Magnolia and her litter of nine yellow pups.

Magnolia too keeps a close eye on volunteer Lauren while the balance of her “K” litter nurses. With a litter this size – nine pups in total – some manner of organization is required to make sure all pups get their turn. As each pup’s massage is finished they get placed off to the far end of the blanket. Only eight more to go Lauren!

Guiding Eyes volunteer rolls puppy over in towel while doing massage.

I could have watched Lauren for hours. Like some kind of shokunin of sushi, the use of a towel to roll this pup from her tummy to her back was both simple and elegant. Why didn’t I think of that!

Guiding Eyes volunteer finishes rolling puppy onto her back using a towel.

Guiding Eyes volunteer places puppy back with her litter.

As pups get a little older and more mobile, volunteers begin working with them in an early-socialization room. A litter at a time, pups begin to learn name recall, basic obedience (sit, down etc.), and are exposed to a variety of novel objects and underfootings.

Guiding Eyes pups take a ride to the socialization room.

The early-socialization room is a quick tram ride from the whelping kennels proper. The socialization room itself contains all variety of apparatus, some repurposed and some custom-built. Think daycare playspace but cleaner.

Guiding Eyes volunteer works on teach pups to sit.

Leveraging the pups’ stellar sense of smell and strong food drive, Lauren uses a simple training technique called “luring” and lots of praise to begin teaching Gleeson, Grant, and Gunther the command “sit”. The pups are one month old here and already quick studies.

Guiding Eyes volunteer Lauren kisses pup Grant on the nose.

Guiding Eyes training is positive reinforcement based. The pups get rewarded with things they love – food, play, and in this case, physical praise in the form of a kiss.

Guiding Eyes volunteer works with pup Gunther on a set of mini stairs.

Here again Lauren uses “luring” to work with Gunther over a mini set of stairs. There is a delicate balance in providing encouragement without pressure. Done properly, the pups confidence and trust grows with each repetition. It’s not long before they start exploring on their own.

Two Guiding Eyes pups sit on the lap of a volunteer in the socialization room.

Two pups from the Bronte/Dougal “F” litter wait on volunteer Suzanne’s lap for their turn in the early-socialization room.

Guiding Eyes pups explore a variety of underfootings.

The early-socialization room is as much about free exploration as it is about structured “training”. The pups get to experience a variety of apparatus ranging from repurposed kids toys to custom built mini bridges. The idea is to begin building their sensory vocabulary with all manner of surface textures, sounds, smells, and space.

Guiding Eyes volunteer holds yellow lab pup up face to face.

Guiding Eyes pup lays sleeping on her back on volunteer Suzanne's lap.

Equal if not more tiring to physical exertion is the mental exercise pups get in the early-socialization room. And at this age, it doesn’t take much to tire them out. 8 minutes 37 seconds to be exact in this little gals case. Volunteer Suzanne is happy to oblige with a little massage.

Guiding Eyes pup sleeps on the floor in the socialization room.

One by one the others followed suit.

Guiding Eyes pup sleeps on volunteers lap while getting their paws rubbed.

Guiding Eyes pup falls asleep on an animatronic toy.

Feeding time in the whelping kennels runs the gamut depending on size of litter and age. The littlest pups nurse while the older pups chow down on moistened kibble.

Guiding Eyes pups nursing.

For Magnolia’s “K” litter of nine, feeding time is a bit more frenzied than it is for Selina’s litter of three. Jeep, Johann, and Jada look entirely orderly by comparison. Magnolia still takes advantage of her consolidated pile to do a little cleanup – tongue baths for all.

Guiding Eyes pup nurses.

Michelle and Marlee assist Guiding Eyes pups with their first solid meal.

In the afternoon, with assistance from staffers Michelle and Marlee, Magnolia’s pups get their first solid meal, a puppy gruel of sorts.

Guiding Eyes pup with a messy snout after their first solid meal.

It is a tasty but messy process.

Guiding Eyes brood Magnolia inspects and cleans her pup after eating.

Brood Magnolia stands at attention to inspect and clean each pup after their meal.

Guiding Eyes pups stacked after eating.

One by one, cleaned and bellies full, the pups are stacked neatly like Lincoln Logs.

A Guiding Eyes litter of ten black lab puppies eats. out of two large silver bowls.

Had I not seen the food go in, I would have sworn these bowls got set down empty. Meal-time is a ravenous affair for the Felicity/Gable “E” litter. Starting to show their true Labrador-ness.

When the whelping kennel is at capacity, some litters head out with area volunteers on Home Litter Care. Volunteers welcome a brood and her entire litter into their home, replicating all activities from the whelping kennel including massage, introduction to novel objects, underfootings, and the earliest stages of learning basic commands. The pups also gain exposure to new people, new environments, and a variety of experiences unique to each volunteer home.

Guiding Eyes volunteers Nancy and Elizabeth return pups from a home sit.

Volunteers Nancy and Elizabeth return pups Andre, Ada, and Aron from their Home Litter Care. The pups are returned to a temporary pen awaiting a quick physical before moving down to the breeding kennel for individual pre-training.

Guiding Eyes pup sits in a tupperware awaiting weigh in.

Pup Andre (The Giant) awaiting weigh in.

Guiding Eyes Andre gets an AVID chip and his nails clipped.

After weigh in, staffers MaryBeth and Kate help insert and scan Andre’s AVID chip and clip his nails. Upon completion, Andre will have graduated from the whelping kennel and move on down to the breeding kennel.

Among the great assets on the CDC campus are its outdoor spaces. Both the whelping kennel and breeding kennel have their own separate spaces, a mix of natural green space, trails, and astroturf areas for getting out to the bathroom, exercise, and play.

Guiding Eyes broods head outside with MaryBeth and Marlee to play.

The broods in the whelping kennel head out to play with MaryBeth and Marlee.

Guiding Eyes broods sit at attention surrounding Mary-Beth.

Lest we forget, Guiding Eyes broods represent the cream of the crop. Selected for their outstanding genetics, health, and skills demonstrated after return from fourteen months training with each their volunteer puppy raisers. These girls know their skills. They are also quite skilled at getting treats from MaryBeth.

In addition to the indoor early-socialization room, the whelping kennel works with pups in between pens and in an outdoor astroturf space. Incorporated into play are pretend harnesses. Fashioned from handbag parts, the harnesses provide pups their first taste of what its like to move with something on their back. A pre-cursor to wearing an actual service dog vest or guide harness later on in training.

Guiding Eyes pups play in pretend harnesses.

Brood Peaches looks on while her “C” litter pups play in their cool new gear.

Guiding Eyes pup lays on his back with pretend harness.

Houston, we have a problem! I don’t know if there is an official term for this, but I call it “turtled”. Not uncommon for the harness rookies. But they all bounce right back up. Resilience is a hallmark of Guiding Eyes pups.

Guiding Eyes volunteer leads litter in outdoor turf area.

Sascha leads the Peaches/Percy “C” litter in a little game of “Follow Me” outside on the astroturf. Using only verbal praise and petting to reward pups for tracking her movements, this exercise helps teach pups to take responsibility for keeping track of their handler.

Sasha suits up Guiding Eyes Charlie in a pretend harness.

Sascha suits Charlie up in the pretend harness.

Guiding Eyes Charlie with pretend training harness.

Charlie is a little unsure at first.

Guiding Eyes pups bound around their turf play area.

But it doesn’t take long before they are off and running.

Guiding Eyes pup sits in front of a bed of river rocks.

The first of many challenging obstacles to overcome.

Guiding Eyes pup walks through river rocks and back into whelping kennel.

She chooses the tougher path on her own. Good pup! Zips on through the bed of river rock and back into the whelping kennel with her littermates for the night.

Phew. It’s tiring just observing. There are a lot of moving parts. And the cycle begins again tomorrow at sunrise. And the next day. And so on 24/7/365. The exceeding competence and dedication of staff is what makes the whelping kennel run. Their love for the pups and mission is what makes it succeed. Frankly, if there were a human ward, my wife and I might have had our daughter in Patterson.

Part 2 takes a peek into the world of the breeding kennel, which you can view here.

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  1. This is so fabulous and I hope every puppy raiser and every donor takes the time to see all the things that are involved in making our pups so darn special. Wicked awesome work Jeff!!!

  2. Thanks for sharing the story of GEB so eloquently. We have also been raisers since 2008 and we are currently raising Alexandra in the NH region. Look forward to more photos and stories.

  3. I absolutely love how my Campbell (Joseph/Kizzie litter) and how he has given me my independence back.
    I post all of our adventure’s on FaceBook and I have people across the country and now around the world constantly commenting on our adventure’s.
    Thank you GEB for all that you do and thank you for Campbell. He not only is my guide, he is my friend and I am part of his pack.
    LindaKay Drake & Campbell

  4. This is a beautifully made presentation! The pictures tell all… and it’s great, as a puppy raiser, to see behind the scenes into the guide dog world we are helping to shape. I’m so proud to be a part of this great school! Keep up the good work Jeff <3 ~ Yvonne and Markham, GSD pup on program.

  5. Thank you for telling the story of how GEB puppies begin. My husband and I are blessed with 3 year old Addison who is in the brood program. We puppy raised her from10 weeks and was lucky enough to foster her through the brood program.
    We can’t wait for your next story!

    • Hi Shelly, we foster Addisons litter mate Alicia for the brood program also. We also now own their mom Aloha who is retired. She is a therapy dog through TDI( Therapy Dog Internationl ) now and we visit two BOCES schools in Yorktown each week. Do you live in Westchester? We live in Yorktown. Maybe the dogs could get together and play one day. Let me know, hope to hear from you, Karen Stachowicz.

  6. I am raising my first Guiding Eyes Puppy, Jillian here in the Cleveland East region. She is so smart and lovable. I have not seen the Patterson campus yet, but I’m so happy that you were able to take these great photos and capture their story. It helps us to know what our pups were exposed to before they came into our care. I’m proud to be associated with such a great organization!

  7. This is WONDERFUL! My family & I raised Magnolia and had one of the cute “K” puppies in the pictures! 🙂 We also raised another dog for Guiding Eyes. Thank you for the beautiful pictures and story!

  8. Fantastic storytelling, in every way! Can’t wait for the next part of the series. Beautiful images and a beautiful place. Congrats on a great job!

  9. What a fantastic view into one of my favorite places on earth! The pictures are wonderful, Jeff! Thanks so much for your words and your photos. I never feel like I could do Guiding Eyes justice with what goes on behind the scenes and you have showcased it beautifully!

    • Thank you Maureen. And thank you for letting me interrupt your morning walk. Check out Post 2 for an image from our run-in on the hill.

  10. Fabulous photos – thanks so much! I raised two puppies in the eastern Massachusetts region (I was on Cape Cod at the time). The first pup became a brood and I got to go see her first litter of puppies. Later we raised a puppy from her second litter. Such a joy!

  11. Diane, Kim, and Yvonne : I hope your pups are doing well. You were the initial motivation for this series. Like you, many raisers, including some veteran raisers, have never been to Patterson or Yorktown. The pics scratch the surface but hopefully provide a little feel for what its all about. It is an incredible place.

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