Photo provided by The Guide Dog Foundation and America’s Vet Dogs
Let's Talk About PUPPIES!!!
Back before COVID turned the world upside down, we were grateful to tour the Guide Dog Foundation in Smithtown with Chief Growth Officer Jennifer Gisler and Philanthropy Officer Karman Pun. This organization gives loyal “eyes” to people who are blind or have low vision. Its sister organization, America’s VetDogs offers the same and so much more to veterans and first responders overcoming a multitude of physical and mental health challenges.
If you’re looking for something hopeful and heartwarming — who isn’t? — the newsletter, event pages and other materials of the The Guide Dog Foundation and America’s VetDogs are wonderful, filled with inspiring stories about the extraordinary impact these amazing creatures have. You can also check out their Puppy With a Purpose® program. Their collaboration with the NHL, MLB, and other sport organizations to raise awareness about their mission has made America’s VetDogs one of the most recognizable names in the service animal community.
Providing Support, Companionship, and Purpose
What these dogs provide to the folks they serve is extraordinary. In addition to physical support, a 2018 Purdue Study indicated that veterans with service dogs had significantly reduced PTSD, depression, and anxiety, and an increased willingness to engage socially.
“Veterans tell us their dog gives them purpose,” explains Gisler, who serves as chief growth officer of both organizations, “and a really good incentive to focus on the here and now.”
It is not uncommon to hear someone say, “Thank you for giving me back my spouse.”
These folks have many incredible stories, which they love to share. Some are on video here. We strongly recommend taking some time with them, both to better understand the experience of the organizations’ clients, and the incredible ways they are assisted. One favorite is about a veteran who suffered severe PTSD. He now no longer takes any medication save what he calls his “Big Black Pill,” the Labrador Retriever who now serves him.
If you’d like to delve into the history of dogs assisting people with disabilities, you can check out this article from the International Federation of Guide Dogs. Briefly, the first known record of a dog serving as a dedicated human assistant appears to have been depicted at around 100 AD. The first systemic attempt to train for this occurred around 1780. The modern story of guide dogs begins during the First World War in Germany.
In Smithtown, while its sister organization, America’s VetDogs, wasn’t founded until 2003, the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind has always helped blind veterans. That full history is here. To summarize, in 1946, five community leaders saw a great need to assist those who were blind or visually impaired and committed themselves to finding a way to provide service animals at no cost to those in need. They started out in Forest Hills, Queens. The first trainer was a man named William Holzmann, who helped develop an effective training method. The first to receive guide dogs were Vito Vero and Arthur Torgensen.
The endeavor was a success. By the 1950s, they moved to Smithtown where they were able to develop a full-fledged facility.
The most famous recipient of an America’s VetDogs service dog was probably President George H.W. Bush. At his request, his dear Sully continues to serve the nation at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. He’s also a master of PR, having done an excellent job of elevating VetDogs’ profile.
“Sully has put us on the global stage,” says Gisler. “He’s sparked BIG INFLUX in interest in our programs!”
We actually got to see Sully when we were visiting! He was getting a little R&R — not because he was tired from helping service members, but because he’d just been honored by the Animal Medical Center of New York and named “Top Dog of Year” two weeks prior at the ASPCA. He needed a little break after all that limelight.
As the organizations work to meet growing requests for their dogs, they renovated their training facility. While some expansion is involved, they’re working to be as efficient as possible, increasing functionality and using what they have as optimally as possible.
Of course, as they continue to meet the needs of the individuals they serve, they will need additional funding for their continued growth. They are exceptionally grateful for any gift large or small that they receive!
Where They Serve
The organizations receive 150–200 applications per year for their guide and service dog programs. In their most recent fiscal year, the Guide Dog Foundation and Vet Dogs placed 135 dogs, mostly locally. Among these were 49 guide dogs for the blind and 89 to serve veterans dealing with PTSD, loss of limbs, hearing loss and other disabilities. There’s a one-year wait for guide dogs, and a two-year wait for a service dog.
There are a few key requirements. Veterans must have been honorably discharged. No recipient may have felonies on their records or history of animal cruelty.
It costs north of $55,000 to breed, raise, and train each dog, in part because it takes a special dog to do this job, and you have to raise and train him or her to know if the animal is suitable. To the recipient the dog is FREE. Given the ability it grants the owner to participate in life, the actual value is immeasurable.
Generally, the puppies are whelped at the Foundation headquarters in Smithtown, where they spend their first 6–8 weeks of life. At this point, you may volunteer to be a “puppy camper.” Puppy campers may take the dogs for two weeks at a time, helping them to become basically socialized. Next, a volunteer puppy raiser steps in to care for, teach and socialize the dogs until they are between 14 and 18 months old.
As a puppy raiser, you teach basic puppy obedience including how to behave in a public setting. You’re also encouraged to take these animals wherever you go to help socialize and familiarize them in as many new and diverse surroundings as possible.
Once raised, it’s hard to leave the puppy, but many find the fact that they can just keep doing this helps a lot. Those involved in the raising are also invited to the celebration (pre-Covid) that occurs when graduate and full-fledged guide or service dogs have completed their training. Getting to see the huge difference the dog they raised makes on someone’s life helps, too. It’s a very special day.
The organization also maintains a relationship with 14 prisons in 8 states, hosting a special prison puppy raising program that is mutually beneficial to both the dogs and those incarcerated. Becoming a prison puppy raiser is earned by the inmates and there is an in-depth screening process. The strict schedule provides a good environment for training. The experience, it turns out, has also been proven to help inmates with reintegration into the community.
On average, half of the dogs make it to formal training, which lasts from three to five months. Some turn out to be better suited for other careers, such as working in law enforcement, or perhaps in service to individuals with autism. Others are adopted, usually due to medical issues such as an elbow displacement or allergies. For one, the animals have to be fit to serve their function. For another, they want to make sure recipients aren’t saddled with large medical bills. In these cases, the volunteer who raised the puppy gets first option to adopt.
Trainers are all paid, and they earn it! Roughly 20 trainers are employed by the Foundation and VetDogs, each assigned to their own groups of four or five dogs. The way each dog is trained is a little different, depending on the needs of the client. In addition to helping with blindness, the animals can assist with hearing, other physical disabilities, balance, and emotional support. The dog may be trained to pick up keys or open a door. Some may alert their owner about a microwave going off, a fire alarm or a doorbell, assessing the situation then tapping their person to respond.
Building the Relationship
Once a dog is fully trained, it’s time to introduce the client. The two are uniquely matched to suit size, pace, temperament, and other considerations.
Normally, the organizations host 15–20 classes per year. For the client, ALL expenses are covered, including transportation. A full-time chef is also on staff, which is important for helping accommodate many clients’ special dietary needs.
Service dog class lasts for two weeks. Traditionally, on Sunday, the client would arrive on campus and get settled, starting bright and early on Monday with training and orientation. On Tuesday, human and dog finally meet. From there on in, the dog stays full time with his or her person.
What happens next depends on the needs of the client. The facility itself has several special areas where dog and human can acclimate and learn together before trying their skills out in the real world. One such facility is a “relief area,” where one learns to curb their dog. Cement helps, especially for the vision impaired, so dogs are trained to go on command on concrete. There is also a guide dog obstacle course, as well as a “McDonalds” room, where one can learn how to navigate such experiences, starting with finding an empty seat. Once dog and client have some practice together, they are ready to go to town.
There are lots of field trips based around training in different environments. Guide and service dog teams will visit busy towns, take a trip to Manhattan and even the airport to prepare for their future work together.
By the next Saturday everyone is ready to CELEBRATE!
Of course, nothing has been normal since last March of 2020. However, the organizations have long taken pride in their ability to innovate and adapt. At first, they had to shut down like most everyone, and were exceptionally grateful for the wealth of caring volunteers who helped house the dogs while the facility was closed. By July, guide dog mobility instructors were able to resume on-campus work with their guide dogs in training. In August, they began home placements with guide dog students, some of whom had been waiting months for their new guide dogs.
In a home placement, student and instructor work one-on-one in and around the student’s home community. It’s nice, in that the experience is therefore specifically tailored. However, it’s expensive as this process incurs additional costs such as lodging, meals, and more as the guide dog mobility instructors must be on the road for two weeks.
Service dog instructors have also continued to train and work throughout the pandemic. In August, VetDogs was able to host two veterans on their campus to begin training. Success required restructuring the traditional two-week class to begin with virtual training over several days. Then, clients were invited to the campus for eight days of in-person training and support. Students and instructors are masked, and all participants maintain appropriate social distancing. Again, it works but it’s expensive, especially as class size must be so limited.
The organizations will continue to safely host these micro-classes and home placement in an effort to place as many of these special dogs with those who have been waiting so patiently.
They are grateful for long-standing supporters and anyone new who is willing to stand by their side as they continue to serve the community during these uncertain times. Like all of us, they look forward to being able to return as soon as possible to close-to-normal operations, and to get back to fully doing what they do best: Training and placing these very special dogs with those who need them.
YOUR SUPPORT IS NEEDED! — Puppy Starters, Raisers, and Other Volunteers
The Foundation ALWAYS needs puppy raisers. This can range from a few weeks to a 15-month gig. An important criterion is that you have to be able to limit crate time to no more than 4–6 hours per day. Weekend puppy raisers take the dogs on a part-time basis. Prison puppy raisers keep their dogs Monday through Friday. Some college campuses, such as the University of Georgia, have established puppy raising groups.
It’s not just puppy caretakers that are required. More than 1600 volunteers across country serve as raisers, bathers, walkers, and drivers. Each volunteer role is vital to the organizations’ success!
MAJOR GIFTS — Sponsorship is Key. Business Partners Welcome!!!
Sponsors enable the entire program to happen and are particularly needed now that things have become so difficult. Financial support at any level is deeply appreciated.
The Guide Dog Foundation and America’s VetDogs are especially grateful for the partnerships they have developed with a growing list of corporate sponsors for their corporate puppy with a purpose program. There are two levels of major corporate sponsorship: $25,000 if the sponsor provides the puppy raiser, $50,000 if the organizations do. Sponsors earn the right to name the puppy and are expected to assist in outreach through dedicated social media campaigns.
Sponsors like the New York Islanders and the Washington Capitals report that this is a wonderful way, not only to support the organization and its work, but also to raise company morale, especially as the experience involves so much hands-on time with the puppies.
ANY LEVEL OF SUPPORT HELPS — Smaller Dollar & Supply Donations
The Guide Dog Foundation and America’s VetDogs gratefully accept any financial gift. They also maintain a list of needed supplies, such as towels, approved dog toys, and more.