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Saturday, December 07, 2019

“These are the precepts whose fruits a person enjoys in this world but whose principal remains intact for in the world to come…acts of kindness…” Talmud, Shabbat 127a

I’m not sure whether what I’m doing would be considered an act of kindness, nor am I completely sure why I’m doing it. All I know is I’m hoping to do it well enough to have one of my puppies become a Seeing Eye dog.

I am a volunteer puppy raiser for The Seeing Eye in Morristown. That means I receive a 7-week-old German shepherd, Labrador retriever, golden retriever or golden/lab-cross puppy and train it. I house break it, teach it simple commands, and socialize it, meaning I take it with me almost everywhere I go, provided I have pre-approval from my destination—never supermarkets and restaurants. I am still awaiting approval to bring the dog with me to shul. I also attend puppy club raiser meetings, where we practice obedience commands, ask questions and socialize with other puppy raising families, and go on puppy club trips to museums, malls, NYC and more.

Why have I chosen to take on this responsibility? My son was a toddler when a friend’s dog licked him across his face. From that day on he was terrified of dogs until he decided he no longer wanted to have this fear and took it upon himself to visit our neighbors’ dogs. He overcame his fear at 8 and then decided he wanted a dog of his own. My husband and I were unsure until we heard that dogs who didn’t qualify as guide dogs, called career change dogs at The Seeing Eye, were great to adopt because they came fully trained, vaccinated and neutered. We soon became the proud and loving owners of Verona, a 2-½-year-old golden retriever who was a career change dog because of her desire not to work. We had been told that she had been through training twice and was referred to as “Princess Verona.”

Verona became our best friend and the love of our lives. She was the baby of our family who would never grow up or leave for college. Before adopting her, I told my husband that we should take her regardless of her “attitude” because, after we married, we lived in Verona. My feeling that this dog was “bashert” for us was confirmed when I went to pick her up and learned she was born on our 11th wedding anniversary.

We were privileged to have Verona for eight years, almost to the day. In that time, she created incredible memories for us. Like the time we took her hiking and she dragged us into the lake. Or the time I made cholent, and it overflowed onto the countertop and down the cabinet to the floor. We returned home to clean cabinets and countertops, and a dog with greasy ears.

When we got Verona, we couldn’t understand why, if she was so well trained, she was pulling us everywhere. Years later, I discovered that Seeing Eye dogs are not taught to heel or walk at their owner’s side the same way pet dogs are trained. They have to be out in front to guide, often resulting in dogs that pull while on leash. Some retraining is required for them to adapt to the polite kind of heeling that is desired for a leisurely walk with a pet.

The Seeing Eye is the oldest existing guide dog school in the world. In New Jersey since 1931, it has completely changed blind peoples’ lives. Society has changed as well, and Service Dogs are now permitted in most locations, making the lives of their owners much easier. Today, they are able to go almost anywhere that sighted people can.

After a year of illness, Verona passed away the Sunday after Sukkot 2011. We mourned her for a year and a half and vowed no other dog would ever cross our threshold again. Our rabbi had known Verona and helped us care for her. His statement after her passing was “Those who knew her will miss her and those who didn’t know her, missed her.”

During our years with Verona, another friend became a volunteer puppy raiser and consistently asked me to do the same. Eighteen months after Verona’s passing and mere months away from being an empty nester, I took the leap. I attended my local puppy club’s meeting, met the club presidents, and completed and submitted my application to raise a puppy.

So far, I have raised a German shepherd and a yellow Labrador retriever. The shepherd didn’t make it through training due to lack of confidence and is now living in our home. In order for a puppy to become a Seeing Eye dog, they have to show confidence in all situations at all times. He may not have had confidence, but he certainly has a lot of love to give.

Our second puppy, the yellow Lab, was rejected due to medical reasons. That dog was a perfect candidate. He learned quickly, obeyed nicely and was able to leap tall objects in a single bound. After his first birthday, for unknown reasons, he developed head tremors. While they were infrequent, lasted a minute or two at most, and he was otherwise unaffected by them, he was not allowed to become a guide and was adopted by another family.

Is it hard to give up a dog that you have known and loved? Absolutely. But it is easier knowing that the dog will be helping others or, in the case of our yellow Lab, going to a loving home.

I am currently raising a Golden retriever. At first glance, he seems like a stuffed animal with golden fur so thick that you can’t see his skin underneath. I am hoping that this time, the third time, will be a charm.

For more information, visit www.seeingeye.org.

By Sharon Kessel