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Raising puppies to guide the blind

By Staff | Sep 14, 2018

SHEPHERDSTOWN — For Tamara Cole, of Martinsburg, raising her first puppy for Guiding Eyes for the Blind has been a learning experience. Cole spoke about her year of raising Zipper during the First Tuesday Speaker Series at Christ Reformed United Church of Christ on Sept. 4.

According to Cole, Zipper will soon go on to Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a school in Yorktown Heights, New York that raises guide dogs and trains blind people how to use them, providing the dogs and training to blind people for free.

“Zipper and I just celebrated one year together. In November, he will be considered a young adult, and will be mature enough to go to ‘college,’ as they call it,” Cole said about the yellow Labrador, whom she has cared for since he was two-months-old.

Cole first heard about Guiding Eyes for the Blind’s need for puppy raisers through social media, and soon after that decided she wanted to try out puppy raising herself.

“Somebody shared something through social media about needing puppy raisers, and I said, ‘I’m going to try this,'” Cole said, mentioning the organization covers all puppy expenses.

Wagging his tail, Zipper sat patiently beside Cole, as she described her training process with Zipper. Although puppy trainers are volunteers, they do go through local, regularly-scheduled classes with Guiding Eyes for the Blind, to make sure they are on top of teaching their puppies “basic obedience and good house manners.” Part of “good house manners” is teaching puppies to navigate large buildings and climb steps, which Cole has been able to do by training Zipper for many months at CRUCC and around Shepherdstown.

“It’s an awful lot of training for your puppy and your puppy raiser,” Cole said about her first year in the Successive Training & Enrichment Program. “He still has a lot of puppy behaviors in him.”

When Zipper goes off to “college,” he will be tested at the school to see if he will be a good guide dog for the blind, or if he would be better suited as another type of guide dog or in security work. If he is best suited as a guide dog for the blind, Zipper will be trained by the school’s professional dog trainers for at least six months and matched with a blind person, whom he will become the companion of when he is about two-years-old.

According to Guiding Eyes puppy raiser of 20 years Kathleen McAllister, of Kearneysville, GEB breeds its puppies from its top Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherds, which ensures about half of all the puppies are capable of becoming excellent guide dogs for the blind. Currently, McAllister is raising her 25th and 26th puppies, Ike and Frodo, along with occasionally babysitting Zipper for Cole.

McAllister said she also enjoys training her dogs in Shepherdstown, and appreciates how dog-friendly the town’s businesses are.

“Our dogs have been to Lost Dog and the Sweet Shop, to start learning manners in a restaurant,” McAllister said. “I always joke that when I begin training a pup, I need a cookie and iced tea.”

To learn more about becoming a GEB puppy raiser, visit guidingeyes.org or call 866-GEB-LABS.