Janet Amberger with members of the Scarborough Fire Department and Cleo, a Labrador retriever she is raising for Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Amberger said introducing the dogs to a large number of people in many different environments helps with training. Photo submitted by Janet Amberger

SOUTH PORTLAND — For 66 years, Guiding Eyes for the Blind has been raising and training guide dogs for people with disabilities. Now they’re looking for Mainers to volunteer to raise puppies that will grow up to make a difference in people’s lives.

Patricia Webber, the New York-based organization’s regional manager in Maine, said Guiding Eyes for the Blind has about 17 different volunteers raising puppies.

Janet and Larry Amberger pose with Nell, a black Labrador retriever the couple raised for Guiding Eyes for the Blind. The dog went on to become a breeder for the organization. Photo submitted by Janet Amberger

In an average year, breeders produce about 500 puppies and, according to the organization’s website, about 170 guide dogs get placed with homes annually. To date, the program has produced 8,000 guide dog teams.

Those puppies grow to become important partners for blind people living across the U.S.

Anne Chiapetta, of Westchester, New York, is blind, and has used guide dogs provided by Guiding Eyes. The dog she has now, Bailey, a yellow Labrador retriever, is her second dog. She got Bailey in 2014, after Webber raised him from a pup. Chiapetta said the bond with a guide dog is profound.

“It goes way beyond the bond with a pet, because you trust them with your life,” she said.

Chiapetta recently retired but once worked at an office, and her guide dogs helped her navigate obstacles from her home to a bus for the commute to work, in her office and while conducting errands. She said she has used a cane in the past, but it’s just not the same.

“A white cane detects every single obstacle in your way,” she said. “A guide dog is more fluid. He guides you around things.”

She said other blind people she has spoken to have likened using a guide dog for the first time to flying, and she said she agreed.

“It’s less jarring, and more freeing,” she said.

Krissy Hancock, 39, of Moyock, North Carolina, has needed a guide dog ever since a disease caused her to lose peripheral vision and depth perception. She works with Quest, a 5-year-old black Labrador retriever Janet Amberger of South Portland helped raise.

“He keeps me from running into things,” she said, especially the yellow cones on the floor at the local shopping center.

“Those are my worst enemies,” she said.

Puppy-raiser Janet Amberger said it’s important to socialize the dogs and let them get used to all kinds of activity, including parades. Photo submitted by Janet Amberger

Quest helps her avoid more serious hazards, too, not hesitating to pull her out of the way of an oncoming vehicle or other dangerous obstacle.

“He helped me regain my confidence,” she said.

The organization has experimented with different breeds over the years, sometimes using poodles and boxers, but now, Webber said, they almost exclusively breed Labrador retrievers.

“They have a natural desire to work and be with people,” she said.

The puppies are born in Patterson, New York, then distributed to puppy-raisers in states mostly along the East Coast. Each raiser works with one dog at a time, and once raised to the proper age, usually no more than 16 months, the dogs then return to Yorktown Heights for training.

‘Selective disobedience’

Guiding Eyes for the Blind is always looking for new puppy-raisers. Webber said volunteers have to have a love for animals, but also the selflessness to understand that they won’t be keeping the pups.

“You have to be able to keep this dog for a year and a half, then send it off to another mission,” she said.

She said raisers need to teach perfect household manners. Feeding a dog table scraps, for example, might teach the dog it’s OK to take food from the table. Allowing a dog on the furniture, she said, teaches the dog it’s OK to do that in the home of a disabled person.

“It’s a pain in the neck if you can see and that happens,” she said.

Also, Amberger said, guide dogs need to learn “selective disobedience,” meaning they need to know when not to obey their owner’s commands, like when a blind person tries to walk with the dog into a busy intersection.

Maury didn’t quite have the skill set for a guide dog, but Janet Amberger said he has made an excellent pet. Photo submitted by Janet Amberger

“Guide dogs have to be intelligent, persistent and aware, which doesn’t make them the easiest puppies to raise,” she said. “A guide dog has to be a leader and has to make decisions.”

Amberger, 68, a retired teacher, first began volunteering for Guiding Eyes for the Blind back in 2007. At the time she was living in Cape Elizabeth and had just lost her own dog, but took inspiration from a neighbor who’d been raising puppies for the organization.

Amberger said she and her husband, Larry, love working with the dogs. To date, six of her dogs have gone on to become full guide dogs or became breeders. Several more had some medical or behavioral problems that excluded them from being guide dogs, but made them suitable as pets.

Just as rewarding as working with the dogs, Amberger said, was meeting people through volunteering.

“The community that’s involved are wonderful people, and people we wouldn’t have met otherwise,” she said.

For more information, visit guidingeyes.org.

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