Guide dogs were not always the stalwart service animals helping people cross the street or go up a flight of stairs.
The process begins with a sponsor willing to donate to the Guide Dog Foundation in Smithtown and get their career as a service dog started. Next, a family volunteers to raise them for about a year and a half.
After giving the puppy back to the Guide Dog Foundation, the dogs are extensively trained in “Guide Dog University,” where they are eventually placed down a certain career path. Dogs do not only become guide dogs, but some become detective dogs or even a pet if they do not fit in other categories.
“Someone is going to benefit from this in the future,” said Jim Gallagher, 46, a puppy raiser from Seaford. “With these dogs, they have a whole new identity.”
Gallagher’s desire to volunteer for the Guide Dog Foundation’s puppy raising program came from his kids’ wish to have a dog and his passion for helping the blind. He used to be an independent funeral director who would collect glasses from the deceased and donate them to the visually impaired.
Before becoming a puppy raiser, he was interviewed by the foundation to ensure he had time to raise the puppy in a healthy environment and attend training classes, where puppy raisers meet in public places and practice assimilating the dogs into a social atmosphere.
Gallagher was taught to condition his dog so it would not fear any obstacles to help its owner overcome. Before reaching this step, however, a puppy must be sponsored for $6,000 to help cover the costs of raising a guide dog. Gallagher’s puppy was sponsored by the Seaford Knights of Columbus, which he is a third-degree member of.
Another group of people devoted to this cause include the Seaford Lions Club, who recently partnered with Runyon’s of Seaford in a fundraiser to sponsor a puppy.
“For many years we’ve been hosting the Lion Club at our restaurant and a member, Elizabeth Hilton, had a guide dog who was always loved,” said Grail McGinley of Runyon’s. “It was a natural thing for us to want to help out the Guide Dog Foundation.”
The Lions Club has it’s own history rooted in serving the blind. According to past president John Kraft, the service organization has wanted to help the blind ever since inviting Helen Keller to speak at an event of theirs when they were just starting up. She challenged them to be the “knights of the blind” and in the 20s, they took up her challenge.
Like the Lions Club and Runyon’s, a lot of clubs and organizations raise money to sponsor a guide dog, according to Jamie McGread of the Guide Dog Foundation. While the price to sponsor a guide dog is $6,000, the full price of raising the dog is $55,000. The foundation covers the difference, which goes towards food, medical needs, breeding, etc.
While sponsors do not raise the dogs, they do get to choose a name, breed and are updated on the puppy’s progress when it’s transferred to a home.
“You must love the animal and idea enough to let it go,” McGinley said.
Those interested in helping can reach the Guide Dog Foundation at 631-930-9000.