HORNELL, N.Y. (WROC) — Elizabeth Williams has been volunteering and raising dogs for Guiding Eyes for the Blind — who provide fully trained dogs for the visually impaired free of charge — since 2004. Her current puppy is a black lab named Tacoma.
Her task as the puppy raiser is to train and socialize the dog as much and as effectively as possible. Training includes teaching the dogs to “work” — meaning how to act as a guide dog — and teaching them to dress in their vests, and socializing includes getting the dog used to as many social situations as possible.
She boasts an incredible success rate; 8 of the 12 dogs she has raised for eighteen months, starting at the tender age of eight months, have either become guide dogs or studs. The normal “graduation rate” for all puppies in the program is 40%.
Reasons for her success seem evident, even through a phone interview. She is precise about how she works with a dog, is effusive in praise and love of the dog, but also has a clear sense of her role. It’s part parent, and part teacher. She has to get the dogs ready for work as a guide dog.
But for Williams, this all started in the family.
In 1999, one of her sister saw an ad in the paper, seeking puppy raisers. Even though the clipped ad sat dormant for a few months, eventually Williams’ sisters and mother started raising dogs.
The whole family has raised 19 dogs for Guiding Eyes.
“It became the normal,” Williams said. She actually never had a dog before she started raising puppies. All of the family dogs passed away before she was born.
Raising puppies not only fostered a love of puppies, but also the process.
Raising the puppies
“I have learned so much about dog training,” she said. Williams says she is a dedicated person, so the long process of raising a puppy, as well as the vision of Guiding Eyes has been a perfect fit. “Guiding Eyes is never just content with good, they’re always striving for excellent.”
That process, whatever the end result, has a tangible outcome for the dog, even if it doesn’t graduate.
“I love the concept of getting an eight week old puppy and transforming it through almost a year and a half into a confident dog,” she said. Anyone could hear a beaming smile through the phone. “Being a guide dog requires confidence.”
Williams says that when she first gets the dog, they have some level of socialization, but “the world is all new to them.”
That fresh view of the world that puppies have feeds into her favorite part of the training: educating the public, and building a relationship with people and the community with guide dogs.
“I go everywhere… I don’t know how to go into a grocery store without a dog,” she said. “I love being ‘the girl with the dog.'”
But having a dog, bringing it everywhere, and raising is “stringent.” Williams also works a full time job at a private preschool… But the dogs have been allowed to come along.
She says she’s incredibly fortunate for this situation. Many other puppy raisers have to meticulously plan lunch breaks and dog sitters.
“And it’s good for the dog and the kids,” she said.
These dogs need a big personality, despite their appearance of outward calm while working as a guide dog.
Williams says that these Guiding Eyes dog, need high drive, a lot of confidence, and must be willing to tell their person “no.”
She says it’s a trait called “intelligent disobedience.” A dog that is completely obedient and relaxed might not have it in them to take action to save their owners. A dog would have to know and be mentally strong enough to stand in front of their owners at intersection with a car coming.
That strength is something she sees in Tacoma, her current dog. Williams thinks that will make Tacoma a great guide dog.
“She has a stubborn streak, and she’s not afraid to have her own mind,” she said. But that stubborn streak has another side too. She says Tacoma has “the lightest heart.”
“She literally makes me laugh all day,” she said. “One fo the things she does is give me this look out of the corner of her eye, and I see the white part of her eye. She gives me this dirty look, and it’s one of my favorite things.
“She loves to work,” Williams said. “When I get out her puppy vest, and I tell her to get dressed, just drives her head into it.”
Williams says that Tacoma even puts herself to bed:
The big picture
Williams has certainly been successful.
Her first dog went to Connecticut state police. She didn’t test well as a guide dog, so they sough out another career. She retired with a 99.8% scent accuracy rate.
Williams has had dogs two released after training. One even become a stud, and is Tacoma’s grandfather.
“It’s nice to keep in the family,” she said.
She said that in total, she’s had eight dogs become guide dogs or studs. But she’s never though about the numbers much. When we did some quick math together, showing that 75% of her puppies stayed in Guiding Eyes or as guide dogs, she said:
“When you put it like that, it is pretty impressive, I guess.”
But that impressive rate comes with sacrifice.
“I think I put so much heart into every moment of that puppy’s life, and it giving it away is hard, but it’s the most crucial part of the whole process,” she said.
Spoken like a true parent and teacher, he simply wants her dogs to be happy and have the best career possible.
“I’m very happy with whatever my dogs decide to do,” she said.
But for all the difference it makes for dogs, it helps people most of all.
Williams has forged personal connections with each person who has taken on one of her dogs. They share stories of how the pair has grown together, or how the dogs have allowed them to have normals lives. Maybe they even share a story or two about how those dogs saved their lives while out in the world.
“I wouldn’t trade those stories for anything,” Williams said. “By giving up a dog, and the dedication of training, to have that impact on another person’s life… If I was blind, I would want someone to do it for me, so I do it for them.”