Since 1929, The Seeing Eye® (TSE) in Morristown, NJ has been training the visually impaired and dogs to work with one another as partners, helping to maintain active lifestyles.
On their 60-acres of land in the Washington Valley, 325 dogs reside and train to be seeing-eye dogs. The process of matching a guide dog with its new owner begins from puppyhood. All of the dogs used at The Seeing Eye are bred within the program. In order to sustain a healthy and genetically monitored group of guide dogs, The Seeing Eye maintains a selected group of German shepherds, Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, and Lab/golden crosses.
“When planning the number of litters we must take into account our success rate and also the fact that we need a wide range of energy levels to match with our students,” said Michelle Barlak, Senior Associate of Public Relations for TSE. “We consider several things when making a match between handler and dog such as the pace at which the dog and handler each prefer to walk, their personalities and the lifestyle of the handler paired with the energy level of the dog.”
Although all potential guide dogs come from the same background, only 60 percent of the litters go on to becoming actual guide dogs. The remaining 40 percent, which have either exhibited temperament problems or do not fully complete the training program due to various issues, work-related problems such as fear of traffic, noise sensitivity, distractibility, and/or medical problems, move into careers in law enforcement or search and rescue, or live the life of a house pet in the home of the family that helped raise him or an outside family. Currently the wait to adopt a Seeing Eye-bred guide dog is two years.
For those 60 percent that pass the initial criteria, they are placed with a pre-selected family that will help raise and train the puppy until they reach a year of age. From there, the puppies enter a more intense four-month training program, until eventually they are matched with their new owner.
On average, the Seeing Eye matches 270 dogs with blind or visually impaired owners every year. The owners also go through a three to four week course of their own, and only after these weeks and months of rigorous training are complete can the dog and owner finally return home together.
Typically a Seeing Eye dog will work with its owner for seven to eight years and then enter retirement. Once retired, these dogs are kept as pets by the owner, given to a family member or friend, or are returned to The Seeing Eye and are adopted by another family—most often the family that helped raise it as a puppy.
There are 314 million visually impaired people in the world, whose daily routines can be made easier and possible by guide dogs. There are currently 1,750 Seeing Eye® dog users in the U.S. and Canada and around 70 organizations around the world that offer this specialized form of training and assistance.