Helping best friends: Future guide dogs learn to serve at JFK training session

dog training
The Guide Dog Foundation and JFKIAT held a puppy class for volunteer puppy raisers on Wednesday, March 15, at JFK Airport’s Terminal 4. (Photo by Ethan Marshall)

The Guide Dog Foundation and JFKIAT held a puppy class for volunteer puppy raisers on Wednesday, March 15, at JFK Airport’s Terminal 4, where as many as 17 future guide dogs were introduced to TSA security, practiced boarding a flight, encountered busy sights and experienced the smells and sounds of the airport’s terminal.

The puppies began the early stages of their guide dog training at around 8 weeks old and the volunteers have each been training them for about 14 to 16 months. The exposure at an airport helps to provide these puppies with socialization so they can gain confidence to be able to assist someone who is blind or visually impaired.

Photo by Ethan Marshall

“We’re very keen on being involved in the community,” JFKIAT Terminal 4 CFO James May said. “Being able to offer our facility for the dogs to help them get climatized to the escalators, bright lights and funny noises is a big deal. I get untold joy out of seeing this. You look around and look at everybody and they got huge smiles on their faces. How can you not enjoy this?”

Photo by Ethan Marshall

Many of the raisers on hand have a lot of experience assisting in training dogs for the Guide Dog Foundation. One of the raisers, Eileen Scheiner, has been involved since 1997. She has been raising puppies for the Guide Dog Foundation since 2004, having already done so for at least 18. She is currently raising and training her latest dog, Rob.

Eileen Scheiner and her dog Rob (Photo by Ethan Marshall)

“The best thing about this is I might not get to do this on my own,” Scheiner said. “It’s very important because a person might need this. To be given this opportunity is amazing. Anything we can expose [the puppies] to is going to help them in the future. For me, to be able to get a dog out there is incredible. The feeling of giving back is amazing.”

While Scheiner did confirm that it is often a little hard to see the puppies she raises leave to begin assisting the humans who need them, she noted that the Guide Dog Foundation presents raisers like her with the opportunity to meet these people beforehand to ensure the dogs will be in good hands. She said this helps to provide her with closure, comparing it to a parent seeing their child leave the house for college and to live on their own.

According to Guide Dog Foundation Puppy Program Manager Lorin Bruzzese, the puppies spend their first eight weeks going through socialization training at their facility before meeting their volunteer puppy raisers and beginning their first year of foundational training. After completing their 14 to 16 months of training with the raising volunteers, the dogs will then go through approximately three months of formal training at the Guide Dog Foundation’s Smithtown facility.

“We’ve been working with Terminal 4 for the last few years,” Bruzzese said. “They’ve been very welcoming to us and have allowed us to experience really unique socialization opportunities for our dogs. They’ve always welcomed us with open arms and given us really great experiences with the puppy classes over the last several years. Giving the dogs the opportunity to slowly become comfortable in this sort of setting is the biggest goal of the puppy-raising phase.”