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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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