My retired Seeing Eye dog Hanni turns 14 years old today. Loyal dog followers know that after Hanni retired from guide work, she went to live with our dear friends Nancy and Steven. To celebrate the big day, they’re heading out for a run in the snow at Homer Lake, a nearby forest preserve.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that a 14-year-old Labrador and Golden Retriever Cross is going for a run today – my first Seeing Eye dog Dora retired at 12 and lived to be 17 years old. The excellent health of these mature dogs has everything to do with the wonderful friends who adopted my retired dogs, but the care and research the Seeing Eye and other guide dog schools put into their breeding programs deserves a lot of credit, too.
Some schools still train service dogs who’ve been donated from individuals or from animal shelters, but the more established guide dog schools know they have to breed their own dogs in order to end up with the unique traits so important to guide work:
- excellent health
- willingness to work
- ability to thrive on praise
The Seeing Eye breeds Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, Lab/golden crosses and German Shepherds — when I was training with Whitney, I was told the Seeing Eye is the only guide dog school in America still breeding German Shepherds to become guides.
Updated on 02/09/14: I met a young woman named Erin on a trip to Denver a few years ago, she’s a volunteer puppy-raiser for Guide Dogs for the Blind and explained in a comment below that, “Guide Dogs for the Blind decided not to use shepherds because of the very low success rate.” She said only one or two out of eleven German Shepherd puppies made it as guides. She also pointed out Guiding Eyes in New York still breeds and trains shepherds and the only breed they use at fidelco is German Shepherds. Another update on 02/12/14 from a comment Cindy left below, she and her family raise puppies for Leader Dogs and says they still breed and train German Shepherds, too.
Decades of research has gone into the Seeing Eye’s breeding program, much of it driven by the fact there is no “perfect Seeing Eye dog.” Dogs of all sorts of temperament, size, strength, speed and energy are necessary to match with blind people who come to the Seeing Eye school with, guess what, all sorts of temperament, size, strength, speed and energy levels. The Seeing Eye web site says their breeding station has “interconnected geometric pavilions, designed so that dogs can see each other and see people enter the kennel, so barking –not to mention stress – are greatly reduced.” Their goal? “To provide a facility most conducive to a positive early childhood experience for the puppies.” I just love that.
And I just love Hanni, too. I’m so grateful the Seeing Eye bred her for me, and so happy to think of her with Nancy and Steven today, running joyfully through the snow to celebrate her 14th birthday . Happy birthday, dear Hanni. Happy birthday to you.