Triple “I” Threat: Impact, Importance and Irma January 29: National Seeing Eye Dog Day

rose.jpgAlthough Seeing Eye® dogs have been around for a very long time; it wasn’t until the end of World War I that there was a catalyst for more widespread use. At the time many soldiers came home blinded, often by poison gas. It was then that the idea of guide dogs helping affected soldiers was born. 

Today is National Seeing Eye Dog Day and to commemorate these important service animals, we recently interviewed Rose Bogina, a Rutgers University junior, who is training a puppy from The Seeing Eye® and Jamie Maffit, a low vision and orientation and mobility specialist at the William Feinbloom Vision Rehabilitation Center housed at The Eye Institute.

Bogina, a member of the Rutgers Seeing Eye Puppy Raising Club, recently received a seven-week-old puppy and has made a year-long commitment to help train, raise and give her the proper exposure needed before she’s old enough to be a formally trained guide dog. Along the way, Irma, who was just 10-weeks-old when we conducted this interview, will learn multiple commands and be exposed to a variety of different settings so she can learn to properly behave in public.

“Some of the commands that you have to teach them are to sit, stay, down, forward is their command to start walking forward, park time is the command to go to the bathroom because they must know that when they’re out working,” Bogina said.

Irma RutgersClasses at Rutgers started just last week and Irma has been adjusting well to early mornings and listening in the classroom. Not only will she attend lectures and classes with Bogina, but she will be exposed to “the movies, restaurants, baseball games, sporting events, shopping, and basically anything like that to give her proper exposure and learn to behave in public.”

“It’s also important to introduce her to different people - old, young, babies, different animals, different types of cars, trains, buses so she’s comfortable in all of those different settings,” Bogina said. As Irma gets older, she’ll gradually be introduced to loud noises such as concerts, hearing a band play, football games and the like to make sure she’s well rounded and accustomed to any situation she may encounter in the future.

According to Maffit, training is two-fold, both on the service animal and on the individual who receives the animal. Aspects that are considered for individuals to be placed with guide dogs are their age and whether they can take on the responsibility of caring for an animal; their functional vision; their independent travel prior to having a guide dog and learning how to travel with a guide dog.

“Because a dog really is a helpful mobility system but the person being paired with the dog guide is the person in charge of the travel – a dog isn’t going to tell you when to cross the street,” Maffit said. For instance, while the individual tells the dog when it is time to cross the street, dogs have “intelligent disobedience” – the guide dog may override its master when it deems it is an inappropriate time – such as a quiet car approaching that the person is unaware of. “The dog will prevent the person from crossing which would be the intelligent disobedience that the dog guide is trained to do,” Maffit said.

But, the individual still needs the orientation skill set as well as other techniques and strategies for travel in order to be able to navigate safely with a service animal. The Feinbloom Center’s multidisciplinary staff - including Maffit - provides adaptive equipment, rehabilitative services and information to patients who have experienced vision loss.

O-M-Guide-Dog-Training-Oct-2015-(6).JPGBy definition, a service animal is specifically trained to perform a specific task for their handler - a guide dog is meant to guide someone who is blind or visually impaired. The Seeing Eye’s mission is to enhance the independence, dignity and self-confidence of individuals who are blind, through the use of specially trained Seeing Eye ® dogs such as Irma.

After the year is out, the next step for Irma will be medical clearance. “It’s really important that if they’re going to be working and they are going to have that stress on their body, that they have the proper bone structure and they aren’t predisposed to something that would limit their amount of time to be able to guide,” Bogina said. Other obstacles which can deter dogs from continuing can be food or environmental allergies, harness discomfort, or being scared easily by vehicles.

After she’s medically cleared, Irma will work with an instructor for four to five months, which is when she will become adjusted to and start walking with her harness in addition to learning more advanced commands. “There’s a blindfold test where the instructor will be blindfolded and Irma will have to prove that she can guide throughout different situations,” Bogina said.

Once training is finished, she will have her ‘town walk’ which entails navigating the streets of Morristown, N.J. – where The Seeing Eye is located - with her instructor to prove how well she can guide. This will be the last time Bogina will be able to see her before she is matched - once matched, the two will be trained together for approximately one month before going home together. Each year, The Seeing Eye has about 100 to 200 successful matches. 

And, to Bogina, although the commitment is large, the takeaway and impact of the program is greater. “It’s something unique that not many people can say that they’ve done, to say “I’ve raised a guide dog and she’s out there in Texas working, to know that is pretty cool,” she said. “It’s also really great to know that you have such an impact on someone’s life as well as being able to advocate for The Seeing Eye and for the use of guide dogs – when people stop me and ask about Irma, it’s nice to teach the public.”