Sarah Smith lost her sight 40 years ago, a complication of the diabetes she’d struggled with since she was a child. At 30 years old, she had to learn to use a cane to navigate a world she could no longer see.
After a dozen years mastering the use of the cane, she decided to try a living, breathing helper.
Smith, who lives in Belfast, got her first guide dog in the early 1990s from Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a national nonprofit that raises and trains dogs before passing them on to people with visual impairments at no cost to the recipient.
“It’s just so much faster to have a dog helping lead you and avoid hazards than it is feeling around with a cane,” Smith said Wednesday while out on a walk with Hamilton, a yellow Labrador and the sixth Guiding Eyes dog she’s owned, at her home in Belfast EcoVillage.
“I think he might be the best one I’ve had,” Smith said.
When Smith holds Hamilton by the leash, he acts like a well-behaved pet, sniffing around the snow, but not tugging or wandering too far. As soon as Smith grabs and lifts his harness, Hamilton’s head shoots up, and he enters work mode, standing close at heel and keeping a watchful eye over surroundings.
Getting these dogs ready for working life takes a lot of time and dedication. Guiding Eyes relies on volunteers to take in the puppies and train them through their first year, but is having a hard time finding enough people, especially in coastal and central Maine.
The carefully bred and selected puppies, mostly Labradors, spend their first week with volunteers who socialize the dogs and give them their names. After eight weeks, the organization matches the dogs with one of about 500 volunteer trainers spread across the country, who take the dogs into their homes and build the foundation on which the rest of their training relies.
Patricia Webber raised guide dogs for 25 years before becoming the regional manager for Guiding Eyes. Today, she trains and oversees people across Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts who volunteer to to raise the puppies through their first year.
“You need people who are passionate about animals and committed, but also selfless,” Webber said during a recent interview.
When the dogs become around 18 months old, the volunteer raisers give the dogs back to Guiding Eyes, which evaluates the dogs to ensure they’re ready for “college” — the extensive training led by paid professionals who prepare the pups for their roles as guide dogs.
Becky and Steven Chamberlain of Hermon have raised two puppies for Guiding Eyes, the first in 2014.
“I was having empty nest syndrome,” Becky, an ed tech at a local school, said of how the couple go into it. “Both my boys had graduated college and moved away, and I needed something to do.”
The couple’s first dog was Burr, who went on to be placed with a visually impaired man in North Carolina. Their second dog, Rusty, recently finished his training and is awaiting graduation from the program and placement with a recipient. The Chamberlains plan on traveling to New York to watch his graduation ceremony.
This year, they’re taking a break from puppy raising because a change in their work schedules means the dog would be stuck in a crate most of the day. It’s a big commitment, and it can be difficult to say goodbye to a dog you’ve raised for a year, Becky Chamberlain said, but the payoff is knowing that someone’s life will be improved, thanks to your hard work. Plus, there are usually other dogs to take in.
Webber said the people who foster Guiding Eyes puppies are expected to teach basic obedience and good habits. Prospective guide dogs will have to be retired if they start picking up behaviors such as going to the bathroom indoors, eating food off the counter or not coming when called.
The trainers are also the first people to expose the pups to the outside world. They take the dogs to town and expose them to cars and noise, to parks where they can meet and learn to ignore other dogs, to sporting events where kids are running around, and to stores and malls where they learn to cope with crowds. All this exposure is meant to help them acclimate so that nothing surprises them when they’re training for real-world guiding.
They also need a bit of “willful disobedience,” Webber said. If their handler is trying to cross a street, and traffic is busy, the dog needs to be able to stop and resist crossing until the coast is clear. If the dog is too cautious, however, that can present further problems for the handler.
Webber said there are typically 15 to 20 puppies being trained in Maine, but it’s getting harder to find volunteers with the time to commit, especially around Bangor and the midcoast. Some raisers have helped put more than 20 dogs through the program.
“It can be difficult to commit all this time and love to a puppy and then let it go when your time’s up,” Webber said. “They have to keep in mind, it’s not your dog, it’s belongs to Guiding Eyes and it has a future.”
That future being to change a stranger’s life for the better.
For more information on Guiding Eyes for the Blind, visit guidingeyes.org.
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