The Camera family of Islip is training two guide dogs....

The Camera family of Islip is training two guide dogs. Guide dog in training Bliss is pictured outside with Elizabeth and Emilie. (Jan. 9, 2011) Credit: Photo by Bruce Gilbert

Perhaps you've seen them in your town, puppies wearing yellow vests that say Future Guide Dog, boarding a train with their handlers or accompanying them to the supermarket, hardware store or museum. They are dogs being raised to help the blind, visually impaired or war veterans, and those who raise them say the experience can be one of the most enriching their families have ever had.

Who's in charge

Many of those dogs come from the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, a nonprofit group founded in 1946 that sits on 10 acres in Smithtown. It is one of 10 such schools in the United States accredited by the International Guide Dog Federation, said William Krol, foundation spokesman. The group has a constant need for more puppy raisers or puppy walkers, he said.

Volunteers are assigned Labrador or golden retrievers, or crosses between the two, and standard poodles are options for those with allergies. The puppies, bred at the Smithtown campus, go to the families at about eight weeks old and stay until they are about a year old. The volunteers' job is to get the dog well-socialized around other people and animals so that it will be ready for the next phase of training.

"What the puppy walkers do is extremely important to create that willingness for the dogs to learn and thrive," said Christi Luse, a puppy adviser at the Smithtown site.

The first year

The dogs go out with their walkers "at least five times a week into the real world," said Phyllis Argyros, puppy program manager for the foundation. "They get acclimated to noises, sounds and smell. They go to movies, on buses, cars, subways, to the barber and nail salon. A blind person goes to all the same places you and I do. The more well-rounded the puppy, the better the dog."

The volunteers' only financial responsibility is the cost of dog food. The foundation pays for veterinary bills, boarding at kennels and any other expenses. Puppy walkers must take a minimum of one puppy obedience class a month. Pets in the home are encouraged. But the volunteers are also told not to let the dog eat table food and not to play tug-of-war games so that it learns to be calm and not overly assertive.

Then they're gone

After a year of living with a family, the pup goes to "canine college" at the Smithtown campus to train with a professional and learn tasks such as how to cross busy streets. Volunteers can meet the student who receives the dog at a graduation ceremony, and the user may choose to maintain contact with the volunteer.

"It was very important to me to teach the kids about giving back," said Lisa Pollicino, a Smithtown mother of seven. Betty Ann Camera of Islip said her three daughters, ages 10, 13 and 15, all actively participate in raising the pups. "This is like a 24/7 means of community service," she said.

Details

Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind Inc., 371 E. Jericho Tpke., Smithtown, 800-548-4337, guidedog.org. A worker from the foundation will come to a potential volunteer's home to interview and assess the family and conditions.

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