Love, and the ability to let go
Have you ever wondered how seeing eye dogs are trained? Surely there must be a strict taskmaster who trains dogs to resist every tasty smell and every lap they long to jump into. But in reality, there are organizations like Guiding Eyes for the Blind, which breeds dogs with the express purpose of being seeing eye dogs and pairs them with families who love them, train them, and let them go.
The Johnsons are just such a family. Residents of Haymarket, they have years of experience working with Guiding Eyes for the Blind – they’ve loved, fostered, and trained four dogs for the organization. Parents Jeremy and Erika, a veterinary technician at Caring Hands Animal Hospital in Bristow, along with their three boys Cameron, Gavin, and Mason, are true animal lovers. After losing their dog several years ago, Erika and Jeremy were considering their new pet options when they contemplated fostering and training service dogs. They had several friends who’d been successful doing so and, while they were looking to give of their own time, they also felt it was an opportunity to teach their boys to look outside of themselves and give to someone else.
Guiding Eyes for the Blind is a non-profit organization that provides trained dogs to those who are blind or visually impaired. The New York-based group has been working with dogs since 1954 and is known for providing well-mannered, “exceptional” dogs who are paired with those “seeking increased freedom and independence, so that together, they can experience all kinds of life adventures.”
Erika contacted Guiding Eyes for the Blind and found the process to be remarkably easy. The Johnsons attended a few pre-placement classes and waited to be paired with the right pup. Typically, puppies are placed with their foster families at about eight weeks old and stay with the family until they are 14-18 months old. According to the Guiding Eyes for the Blind website, the cost to breed, raise, train, match a guide dog to a recipient, and support the team throughout the lifetime of a dog is $50,000. That’s a lot of money and what makes it all even more impressive is that Guiding Eyes for the Blind has created more than 170 guide dog teams during the course of its existence. As for the recipient of one of these dogs? They pay nothing. And the only things families like the Johnson’s pay for are food and toys.
Time is the main commitment when raising a seeing eye dog. The dog needs to be someone’s shadow for the months they are in a raiser’s home. The pups take weekly classes until six months of age, and then twice a month from six months on. When a puppy earns its training vest, usually around four or five months old, they begin public introduction. The dogs get to go grocery shopping, out to eat, visit museums, attend sporting events, and even go shopping! The whole point is to expose them to different sights, sounds, and “under footings” at a young age.
“Our kids loved when the puppies would come to their school concerts or sporting events. Everyone loves a puppy!” Erika said.
(In New York, raisers are able to bring their puppies to work with them so the dogs learn to settle while their raiser works, but as you can imagine, that would have been a challenge with Erika working at Caring Hands!)
The Johnson’s Dogs
In total, the Johnson’s have raised four guide dogs: Baldwin, Sarge, Fergus, and Paco.
“Every single dog we have welcomed into our home has taught us much more than we taught them. We’ve learned patience, perseverance, unconditional love and dependability” Erika said.
Baldwin was their first puppy.
“We are incredibly proud that Baldwin is a guide dog for a man named Tom in Ohio,” Erika shared. Sarge, their second dog is a guide for Omar, a gentleman in New York who is a survivor of the 9/11 attacks. Paco, their fourth dog, recently went to the Guiding Eyes for the Blind headquarters. The Johnsons have been told he’s doing really well in his training and is scheduled to graduate in April.
Cameron, the Johnson’s oldest son, raised Paco. Paco slept in Cameron’s room and Cameron took him to every training class.
“Cameron trained him from beginning to end, and those two have a very special bond,” Erika said.
Said Cameron, “I wanted to raise a dog on my own because I saw how big a difference a guide dog could make in someone’s life. Even though I knew it would hurt to give him back, knowing I had a part in making him successful gives my life more purpose and makes me feel good. I miss him, especially how playful he was, but I know he is doing big things.”
While the end result of raising a seeing eye dog is fulfilling, it is also heartbreaking. Erika recalled how difficult it was bringing Baldwin back to Guiding Eyes for the Blind. The family beamed while watching him ace his first training test, but when they left him, they all cried on the way home. It wasn’t until they returned for his graduation ceremony and heard Tom, the man from Ohio with whom Baldwin was paired, talk about all the ways Baldwin would change his life did the Johnson’s feel the full effect of the good they’d done for someone else. Because of Baldwin, Tom could now keep up with his daughters as they rode their bikes and he could become more independent. The Johnson's realized they had a part in that. And it was that feeling of pride that has enabled them to go back and do it again three more times.
“Every time we’ve taken a dog back, it has been hard. These dogs work their way into your heart and you absolutely have to love them to help them be successful. It’s a bit like sending your kid off to college; you do everything you can to prepare them and only they can take the next step. You just hope you did enough,” Erika said. The goodbyes are the hardest part, but the Johnson’s all agree that they would do it again (and again).
If you’re wondering about Fergus, well, somewhere along the line Fergus realized he didn’t want to be a guide dog, and was released from the Guiding Eyes program. Some might consider that a failure, but if you ask his family what they think, Erika, Jeremy, Cameron, Gavin, Mason, and kitty Gulliver would tell you that for them, it’s a happy ending.