50 Fascinating Facts About Cats

Seregraff/iStock via Getty Images
Seregraff/iStock via Getty Images

From the time you wake up with a fluffy pile purring on your face to the time you go to bed with that fluffy pile purring on your face again, there are a lot of reasons to love our cats. If you want to celebrate Felis silvestris in all its furry glory, try sharing some of these 50 bits of cat trivia.

1. Cats spend between 30 to 50 percent of their day grooming themselves.

The gray cat is washing and licking. The cat is sitting on the sofa on a knitted blanket in a cozy warm home.
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Are you that clean? This behavior serves several purposes: It helps cats tone down their scent so they can avoid predators, it cools them down, it promotes blood flow, and it distributes natural oils evenly around their coat, allowing them to stay warm and dry. Grooming also serves as a sign of affection between two cats, and it’s thought that saliva contains enzymes that serve as a natural antibiotic for wounds.

2. Purring doesn't always mean a cat is happy.

Cats often make the sound when they’re content, but they also purr when they’re sick, stressed, hurt, or giving birth.

3. It's possible that purring helps bone density.

Scientists don’t quite know why cats purr, but one hypothesis is that the sound frequency of purring—between 25 and 150 Hertz—"can improve bone density and promote healing," theorizes Leslie A. Lyons, an assistant professor at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis, in an article for Scientific American. "Because cats have adapted to conserve energy via long periods of rest and sleep, it is possible that purring is a low energy mechanism that stimulates muscles and bones without a lot of energy."

4. A cat's nose has catnip receptors.

Close-up of a cat's mouth, nose, and whiskers
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Ever wonder why catnip lulls felines into a trance? The herb contains several chemical compounds, including one called nepetalactone, which a cat detects with receptors in its nose and mouth. The compounds trigger the typical odd behaviors you associate with the wacky kitty weed, including sniffing, head shaking, head rubbing, and rolling around on the ground.

5. But most cats don't respond to catnip.

More than half of the world’s felines don’t respond to catnip. Scientists still don’t know quite why some kitties go crazy for the aromatic herb and others don’t, but they have figured out that catnip sensitivity is hereditary. If a kitten has one catnip-sensitive parent, there’s a one-in-two chance that it will a

lso grow up to crave the plant. And if both parents react to 'nip, the odds increase to at least three in four.

6. Cats make great private detectives.

Can’t afford a private eye? A feline might be able do the job for free. In the 1960s, ambassador Henry Helb—who then lived in the Dutch Embassy in Moscow—noticed that his two Siamese kitties were arching their backs and clawing at one of the walls. Helb had a hunch that the cats heard something he couldn’t, and sure enough, he found 30 tiny microphones hidden behind the boards. Instead of busting the spies, Helb and his staff took advantage of the surveillance and griped about household repairs or packages stuck in customs while standing in front of the mics. The eavesdroppers took care of their complaints—and apart from Helb and his companions, no one was the wiser.

7. The wealthiest cat is named Blackie.

A rich British antique dealer named Ben Rea loved his cat Blackie so much that when he died in 1988, he left most of his estate—totaling nearly $13 million—to the lucky (albeit likely indifferent) feline. The money was split among three cat charities, which had been instructed to keep an eye on Rea’s beloved companion. To this day, Blackie holds the Guinness World Record for Wealthiest Cat.

8. Your cat probably hates music.

Tuxedo cat plays with a mouse toy
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But they might like tunes written by composer David Teie, who partnered with animal scientists to make an album called Music for Cats. Released in 2015, the songs are “based on feline vocal communication and environmental sounds that pique the interest of cats,” Teie’s website states.

9. A group of kittens is a kindle.

A kindle isn’t just an e-reader—it’s also a word that’s used to describe a group of kittens born to one mama cat. Meanwhile, a group of full-grown cats is called a clowder.

10. Many historical figures loved cats.

If you adore felines, you’re in good company: Many of history’s most famous figures—including Florence Nightingale, Pope Paul II, Mark Twain, and the Brontë sisters—all owned, and loved, cats.

11. Abraham Lincoln was a huge fan of cats.

Portrait of Abraham Lincoln
ilbusca/iStock via Getty Images

Still, the title of history’s craziest cat man might go to Abraham Lincoln. Mary Todd Lincoln was once asked if her husband had any hobbies. Her response? “Cats!” (He also liked dogs.)

12. If you love cats, you're an ailurophile.

Looking to elevate your vocabulary? Try using the word ailurophile in a casual conversation. It’s a fancy word for "cat lover," and it’s derived from the Greek word for cat, ailouros, and the suffix -phile, meaning "lover." Conversely, the word ailurophobe—a combination of ailouros plus phobe—describes someone who hates cats.

13. Cats first went to space in 1963.

On October 18, 1963, French scientists used a rocket to launch the first cat into space. The feline’s name was Félicette, and she made it safely to the ground following a parachute descent. Almost definitely landing on her feet.

14. The world's oldest living cat is 31 years old.

As for the world’s oldest living cat, the title belongs to a sometimes-cranky white-and-orange kitty named Rubble, who celebrated his 31st birthday in June. The average lifespan is 12-18 years.

15. The Guinness World Records don't have an award for fattest cat.

Lazy fat tabby cat lying on a couch
Lulamej/iStock via Getty Images

Officials don’t want to encourage people to overfeed their pets, but in 2003, a Siamese cat named Katy was a serious contender for the unofficial record. Katy, who lived in Asbest, Russia, was given hormones to stop her mating. The treatment had an unintended side effect: It dramatically increased her appetite, and the hungry kitty ballooned to 50 pounds.

16. Cats might be marking you as territory when they massage you.

Sounds right. Experts haven’t figured out why cats like to knead, but they’ve come up with several possible explanations, one being that your kitty is trying to mark their "territory" (that’s you!) with the scent glands in their paws. And since kittens knead their mama’s belly to stimulate milk production, there’s also a chance that they carry this behavior into adulthood—a phenomenon known as a "neotenic behavior."

17. There's a cat painting worth close to $1 million.

In 2015, a 6-by-8.5-foot oil painting billed as the "world’s largest cat painting" sold at auction for more than $820,000. It’s called My Wife's Lovers, and it once belonged to a wealthy philanthropist named Kate Birdsall Johnson. She loved felines so much that she owned dozens (some even say hundreds) of kitties, and commissioned a painter to capture her Turkish Angoras and Persians in their natural element. Since Johnson’s husband called the clowder "my wife’s lovers," the nickname was selected as the artwork’s title.

18. Cats don't always land on their feet.

Woman holding a bunch of kittens
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Contrary to popular belief, cats don’t always land on their feet when they fall. But more often than not, all four paws end up touching the ground. Cats have a fantastic sense of balance, so they’re able to tell “up” from down and adjust their bodies accordingly. If they sense they’re plummeting downwards, they twist their flexible backbones mid-air, allowing them to right themselves so they don’t fall splat on their backs. Additionally, cats can spread their legs out to “parachute” through the air, and they’re small, light-boned, and covered in thick fur—meaning their fall isn’t going to be as hard as, say, a dog’s.

19. America's favorite breed is the Exotic.

In 2018, America’s most popular cat breed was the Exotic—a flat-faced kitty that’s essentially a short-haired version of a Persian cat. The second most beloved breed was the Ragdoll, and the British Shorthair ranked at No. 3.

20. T.S. Eliot thought cats were more poetic than dogs.

The musical Cats is based on a collection of T.S. Eliot poems called Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Published in 1939, it follows the whimsical antics of a group of felines—but the manuscript was originally intended to feature dogs, too. In the end, though, Eliot determined that "dogs don’t seem to lend themselves to verse quite so well, collectively, as cats."

21. Your cat might be allergic to you.

An orange Exotic cat sits on a black mirror
Seregraff/iStock via Getty Images

Usually we think it's the other way around, but even if you’re not allergic to cats, your cat might be allergic to you. One in 200 cats are believed to have asthma—and this number continues to rise among indoor kitties as they're more frequently exposed to cigarette smoke, dust, human dandruff, and pollen.

22. Japan has a cat who manages a train station.

A train station in Southeastern Japan is presided over by an adorable "stationmaster": a 7-year-old calico cat named Nitama. The Kishi train station near Wakayama City hired Nitama in 2015, just a few months after its prior feline mascot, Tama, died from acute heart failure at the age of 16.

23. Cheetahs aren't the only cats that are fast.

Greyhound dogs are the ones with a bus line named after them, and cheetahs get the prestige, but house cats are pretty speedy, too: The average running feline can clock around 30 mph. That's enough to get a ticket in a school zone.

24. Yes, ancient Egyptians loved cats.

The ancient Egyptians revered cats, and even worshiped a half-feline goddess named Bastet. People who harmed or killed cats faced harsh legal sentences, including the death penalty.

25. No one knows why black cats are considered to be bad luck in some cultures.

Black cat looks right at the camera
oksy001/iStock via Getty Images

This myth has persisted across Western civilization for centuries. Felines with dark fur first became linked with the Devil during the Middle Ages, and when the Black Death pandemic ravaged Europe in the mid-14th century, superstitious individuals responded by killing off the black cat population. Little did they know that vermin carried the deadly disease and that the rodent-eating cats actually helped curb its spread. And black cats eventually became associated with witches because women accused of practicing black magic tended to adopt alley cats as companions.

26. In Great Britain and Japan, black cats are good luck.

Black cats are considered to be a bad omen in the U.S., but in Great Britain and Japan, they’re perceived as auspicious. In the English Midlands, new brides are given black cats to bless their marriage, and the Japanese believe that black cats are good luck—particularly for single women. Meanwhile, the Germans believe that a black cat crossing your path from left to right is ominous, but if the feline switches directions and goes right to left, it’s fortuitous.

27. Nyan Cat was based on a real cat.

Remember Nyan Cat? The famous viral meme of a gray kitty with a Pop-Tart body who shoots rainbows from its posterior (the internet, folks!) was based on a real-life feline: a Russian Blue named Marty, owned by Nyan cat illustrator Chris Torres.

28. Cats can't taste sweets.

Cats are genetically predisposed to not be able to taste sweets. They will likely nibble off your plate if it contains meat, but they’ll leave it alone if it’s laden with cake.

29. Cat shows have been around since at least 1871.

thai cats at cat show in expert hands foreground
nickpo/iStock via Getty Images

The world’s first major cat show was held at London’s Crystal Palace in July 1871. Hundreds of felines (and dozens of breeds) were placed on display, and around 200,000 guests are said to have attended the event.

30. Some breeds get heavy.

Most cats weigh in the single or low-double digits, but some breeds are truly huge. For instance, Norwegian Forest Cats, Maine Coons, and Ragdolls often range in weight from 15 to 22 pounds. You should know this before you catsit for your friend with a Maine Coon.

31. Cute cat videos have been around for more than a century.

Long before Keyboard Cat took the internet by storm, inventor Thomas Edison filmed two kitties "boxing" inside a ring. Created in 1894, the brief clip proves that humans have been obsessed with cute cat videos since long before the advent of YouTube.

32. There was a video game based on President Clinton's cat.

Socks the Cat, a black-and-white tuxedo cat, was owned by Bill Clinton’s family during his time in the Oval Office. If you're like me, your third grade class handwrote letters to Socks. Anyway, during the early 1990s, Super Nintendo Entertainment System created a video game called Socks the Cat, featuring the First Feline. It was never officially released, and when the game’s publisher shut down, Socks the Cat was lost for years, until video game collector Tom Curtin bought the (reportedly) only existing copy, purchased the rights, and partnered with game publisher Second Dimension to give it a second life. Socks the Cat Rocks The Hill was finally released in 2018.

33. Some cats have extra toes.


iStock

Beyond their impressive size, Maine Coon cats are sometimes born with six toes.

34. Male cats have barbed penises.

While painful for the lady cat, they do serve a purpose: The barbs stimulate the vulva, allowing the female to ovulate, and they also keep her from escaping mid-coitus. (Felines are typically loners, and not that into sex.)

35. People who go to college are more likely to have a cat.

If you went to college, you’re more likely to have a cat than a dog. In 2010, researchers from the University of Bristol surveyed 3000 people about their pets, geography, and scholastic history. They found that people with university degrees were 1.36 times more likely to own a kitty than other pet owners. This phenomenon might be attributed to the fact that cats are low-maintenance, and therefore better companions for accomplished people with busy careers.

36. Your cat has more bones than you do.

A cat has 244 bones in its entire body—even more than a human, who only has 206 bones.

37. Not all cats have fur.

Small male sphinx cat with ears up lying down
OlgaChan/iStock via Getty Images

Sphinx cats don’t have fur coats, but their body temperature is still four degrees warmer than a typical feline.

38. Most cats don't like getting wet because they lose control.

Experts think that cats hate water because it’s uncomfortable to have soggy fur, or because it’s frightening for a kitty to lose control of its buoyancy.

39. But not all cats hate water.

While many kitties do, breeds including the Turkish Van, Maine Coons, and Bengals are said to enjoy taking a dip every now and then.

40. Cats like small spaces.

A gray Scottish Fold cat peeks out from inside a cardboard box
Asurobson/iStock via Getty Images

Why do cats love to cuddle up in boxes? Animal experts think that the enclosed spaces make felines feel more protected, secure, and important—kind of like they’re back in the womb. (Sure enough, researchers found that when shelter cats are provided with boxes to cuddle up in, they adjust faster and are less stressed than kitties that aren't given boxes.) Also, sleeping in a box might help a feline retain more body heat so it stays nice and toasty, and therefore relaxed.

41. We don't know why cats meow.

Nobody knows quite why cats meow, but experts think they might be channeling their inner kitten. Baby cats make the plaintive noises to get their mother’s attention, but as full-grown felines, they don't meow while interacting with other cats. Some experts think that felines use the noises they made as infants with humans to convey their emotions and physical needs.

41. Cats can sweat.

Cats sweat through their paws (and sometimes when they get very hot they pant).

42. Most of their lives are spent sleeping.

Portrait of a Siberian kitten against a peach colored background
jkitan/iStock via Getty Images

Beyond grooming all the time, according to one estimate, a cat spends nearly two-thirds of its life asleep.

43. Some hotels have lobby cats.

Just like bodegas, the iconic Algonquin Hotel in midtown Manhattan owns a pampered lobby cat named Hamlet. He's one of a dozen rescue felines that have lived in the storied institution since the early 1920s. Hamlet took over the post following three Matildas. (Matilda III passed away in October 2017.)

44. Disneyland has a lot of feral cats (with an important job).

Approximately 200 feral cats roam the grounds of Disneyland, where they help control the amusement park’s rodent population. They’re all spayed or neutered, and park staffers provide them with medical care and extra food.

45. Cats are not good at delivering mail.

A black cat inside a cardboard box.
artsandra/iStock via Getty Images

In the 1870s, the city of Liège, Belgium tried to train 37 cats to deliver the mail. Letters were enclosed in waterproof bags tied around the kitties’ necks, but it turns out that cats weren’t great at delivering the goods on time (or to the correct address). But maybe we simply haven't found the correct training method yet.

46. Quotation marks have a feline connection.

The Hungarian word for "quotation marks," macskaköröm, literally translates to "cat claws."

47. There are more pet cats in the u.s. than pet dogs.

There are an estimated 85.8 million pet cats in the U.S. In contrast, there are only an estimated 78 million dogs.

48. Not all historical figures loved cats.

A cat stretches its paws and claws
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Napoleon, Caesar, Genghis Khan, and Hitler are all said to have hated cats.

50. Cats can jump up to five times their own height.

Or six times its length—and make the entire thing look easy.

YouTube Star Coyote Peterson Brings 'Misunderstood' Animals to His New Animal Planet Series

Animal Planet
Animal Planet

As host of the popular YouTube series Brave Wilderness, Coyote Peterson is no stranger to going face-to-face with creatures many deem terrifying—think great white sharks and pit vipers—but that he says are simply "misunderstood."

Animals have always been a big part of Peterson's life, even before he made a career out of being stung and bitten by ferocious critters. The Ohio native studied video production and directing at Ohio State University, and then decided to combine his two passions—film and all things wild—to teach viewers about wildlife and the importance of conservation. His YouTube channel currently has more than 15 million subscribers.

Now Peterson is embarking on a new adventure with Animal Planet in the show Brave the Wild. He'll travel all over the world with wildlife biologist Mario Aldecoa and his crew, sharing creatures that aren't often in the spotlight and that viewers may find a little frightening. He recently chatted with Mental Floss about the importance of conservation, his thing for snapping turtles, and his close encounter with a jaguar and her three cubs.

You’ve said your love of animals started with snapping turtles. Can you talk about the first time you saw one and what about them fascinated you so much?

The first snapping turtle I caught was when I was only 8 years old. I was always fascinated with turtles, because at first glance they look prehistoric, almost dinosaur-like. Growing up in Ohio, I never got to see any "exotic" animals. My favorite thing to watch on TV was Steve Irwin. Watching him wrestle crocs is what inspired me to catch my first snapping turtle, the most dangerous animal Ohio has to offer.

Coyote Peterson with a gigantic snapping turtle
Animal Planet

In Brave the Wild, you introduce animals that are often feared or misunderstood. What's the importance in exposing viewers to these creatures?

One of my goals through this series was to inspire people to overcome their fears of these seemingly dangerous animals and learn to admire them from a safe distance. The more you understand these creatures, the less you are afraid of them. One of the messages I try to convey in every episode is the importance of conservation.

What’s the most "misunderstood" creature you've encountered?

The most misunderstood creature that comes to mind is the carpet shark, which we filmed in season one. As I always say, people’s biggest fears are the three S’s (sharks, snakes and spiders). The carpet shark is found off the coast of Australia. They only bite humans in the case of mistaken identity. To some of these sharks a person’s foot might look like a fish. Any time you enter a new environment you need to be aware of what you need to look for, not only to keep yourself safe, but the animal as well.

What goes into preparing for each encounter to make sure you and the animals come out alive?

With any new expedition, you need to come into the environment knowing exactly what to expect. When encountering a new animal, I try to stay as calm as I can and have no hesitation. If I stay calm, the animal stays calm, [and] I'm creating a safer interaction for myself. I use different tactics when I encounter different animals. It also depends on whether the environment is land or in water.

How do you keep your composure on camera when you're in a potentially dangerous situation?

Any situation I find myself in, I look at it as my job. For example, I would be afraid operating a crane, because that is something I don't do. If it's part of your job, it's something that you get used to. When I do my job, I make sure I'm focused and never hesitate. Before I encounter any animal, I know what I'm going to say to the camera. I say that, for the best show, we always need to have the camera rolling so the audience can see what is happening.

Coyote Peterson with a kangaroo
Animal Planet

You were in Australia filming Brave the Wild during bushfire season. What was that like?

Visiting Australia was one of the best experiences I had filming the show. Australia is a fascinating country that has so many unique environments. We spent over 50 days in Australia and encountered more than 35 different species. We were there right before all these devastating fires started, and we got to witness the severity of the drought and all the different animals it impacted.

What was your favorite animal encounter in upcoming series?

Each encounter I have in the wild is special. I would have to say that the most exciting moment for me was when we were filming in Brazil and I saw a jaguar and three of her cubs up close. Not only did I get to see this in real life, but my amazing team was able to capture this special moment on tape. It is just so amazing seeing these animals survive and thrive in the wild while dealing with not only the dangers of the wild but human encroachment as well. Hands down, this was my favorite episode that we got to film.

Catch new episodes of Brave the Wild on Animal Planet, Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

10 Secrets of Seeing Eye Dog Trainers

Seeing Eye instructors with the dogs they are training.
Seeing Eye instructors with the dogs they are training.
The Seeing Eye

Founded in 1929, The Seeing Eye is a nonprofit in Morristown, New Jersey, that trains guide dogs to help their blind owners navigate the world safely. In order to make sure each dog is ready for all the obstacles and challenges that come with leading the visually impaired, instructors train them in both real-world settings and simulations at The Seeing Eye's campus. It's a system that has worked for over 90 years.

“It’s the oldest guide dog school, and we’ve been honing this very specific process of training a dog to do very specific tasks,” Brian O’Neal, a guide dog mobility instructor with The Seeing Eye for nine years, tells Mental Floss. “We have a road map.”

Seeing Eye dogs are venerated; in January 2020, New Jersey proclaimed them the official state dog. And legally, no guide dog can even be called a "Seeing Eye dog" unless it graduated from the school itself. Though the dogs that come out of the school have garnered plenty of attention, the dedicated instructors who prepare them for working life are less well-known. We spoke with three trainers from The Seeing Eye about why certain breeds make great guide dogs, how they keep their owner’s safe from low-hanging branches, and whether or not they can read cross signals (spoilers: They can’t).

1. It takes years of apprentice work to become a Seeing Eye Instructor.

Being a Seeing Eye instructor isn't a volunteer position anyone can sign up for—it's a full-time job. If you meet the basic requirements, such as having a four-year Bachelor’s degree, you can apply to become an instructor. Once you make it through the application process, you go through a three-year apprenticeship program in order to become an official trainer. The apprenticeship includes classes and exams, as well as hands-on training with dogs and students, The Seeing Eye’s name for blind people preparing to become guide dog owners.

The work doesn’t become any less intense when apprentices graduate to full-fledged instructors. From 7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., they train, exercise, and care for eight dogs total—four in the morning and four in the afternoon. If you aren’t ready to commit to working for The Seeing Eye full-time, you can volunteer to be a puppy raiser and foster future guide dogs in your own home.

2. Seeing Eye dog instructors also train the dog owners.

The dogs and their trainers aren’t the only ones working hard at The Seeing Eye. Before a blind person can take a guide dog home, they must live on the campus and go through weeks of training to learn all the intricacies of working with their dog, including navigation and bonding.

“A student is someone who’s applied to our school and [has] been accepted to our program, and we’ve flown them here or provided travel to come here,” O’Neal explains. “We match them with a dog, and over 27 days, we teach them how to safely and effectively work with this dog and vice versa. Once they’ve completed the program, they become graduates.” But to get there, the instructors, students, and their dogs have to put in long hours.

“Class is emotionally and physically exhausting," Sarah Indano, who's been in the apprenticeship program for two and a half years, tells Mental Floss. "It's like boot camp to really train these people for everything they need in a limited amount of time."

3. The Seeing Eye instructors only work with dogs bred by the organization.

The Seeing Eye in Morristown, New Jersey.
A photo of The Seeing Eye campus in Morristown, New Jersey.
The Seeing Eye

The Seeing Eye breeds all its own dogs at a center in Chester, New Jersey, and each must meet a strict set of requirements to become a part of the breeding program. “All the dogs are medically tested and their temperaments are also tested,” Ruthanne Dewey, a guide dog mobility instructor at The Seeing Eye for more than six years, tells Mental Floss. “The best of the best are selected to go into that breeding program.”

Even with the proper pedigree, not every dog the organization breeds is fit to be a guide animal. At 7 weeks old, dogs are sent to live with volunteers called puppy raisers who provide them with care and teach them basic commands. When the dogs are about 14 months old, they receive medical testing to determine if they’re fit enough to train to be guide dogs. From there, the training, which O'Neal says involves a lot of "repetition and consistency," lasts four months.

4. Instructors typically work with a handful of choice breeds.

Seeing Eye instructor with a yellow Lab.
Seeing Eye instructor Ruthanne Dewy with a yellow Lab she trained.
Seeing Eye/Ruthanne Dewy

Seeing Eye dogs almost always belong to the following groups: Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, German shepherds, or any mix of those breeds. Both physically and personality-wise, these breeds produce the best dogs for the job. “They are working breeds,” O’Neal says. “They have a long history of work and working alongside humans in varying capacities. So it comes down to their drive to work as well as their incredible temperament.”

This drive to work often translates to a desire to please their humans. As O’Neal states, trainers can only teach dogs so much, and an animal’s need to keep their owner happy is what ultimately allows them to do their job well. “They want to get the praise from that person. They want to figure out, ‘what does this person want me to do? Because I’ll do it.’”

These breeds also fit the physical requirements for a guide animal: They’re big enough to lead a person down the street or block them from traffic, but at the same time, small enough to fit on public transportation or beneath an office desk.

5. Praise is crucial during the training process.

Seeing Eye dogs may not know the directions to the supermarket, but they're trained to learn other tasks that enable their owners to move through their environments with confidence and security. These include stopping short of curbs, moving around objects, and blocking people from walking in front of vehicles. Dogs learn these skills through positive reinforcement—as much as it takes to make the behaviors second-nature.

“When the dog does something right, we’re showering it with love and affection telling it did a great job, and if it didn’t do a great job, we’re telling it ‘no, we don’t do it that way,’ and we’ll always go back and give them the chance to be successful,” O’Neal explains. “That’s important, because if we just said 'no' and moved on, I could see animals being discouraged by that."

6. Seeing Eye instructors can’t teach dogs to read street signs.

Seeing Eye instructor with a black Lab.
Seeing Eye instructor Brian O'Neal with a black Lab he trained.
Seeing Eye/Brian O'Neal

A Seeing Eye dog can navigate obstacles on a sidewalk, or stop a person from stumbling off a curb, but Seeing Eye instructors can't train them to replace a GPS. “I get asked all the time how the dog can read the stop light and know that green means go and red means stop,” Dewey says. “I always explain to people that it is not the dog that decides when to cross the street. The dog doesn’t know how to get to the grocery store. All that falls on the person. The blind person has to be able to cross the street safely.”

7. The Seeing Eye has escalators and Priuses on campus to simulate real-world obstacles.

The more advanced stages of Seeing Eye dog training take place in urban areas, starting in the center of Morristown and culminating in trips to New York City. But before the dogs are ready to enter the real world, trainers find ways to recreate those environments on the campus.

“We have our own maintenance department and mechanic that is in charge of our own fleet of vehicles,” O'Neal says. These cars are used to prepare dogs for the type of traffic they'll encounter when guiding their owners in public. “We also have Priuses so we can make sure the dogs are learning to steer clear of cars that are silent as well.”

The campus also has plenty of indoor obstacles designed for training, like staircases and an escalator that's housed on the grounds.

8. Some obstacles require some surprising training equipment.

Training a dog to look out for objects in front of it—like cars or pedestrians—is fairly straightforward. Making sure they’re aware of obstacles above ground-level poses more of a challenge to instructors. For these lessons, trainers use some unexpected equipment. “We have an obstacle course with overhead pool noodles that stick out to make sure the dogs are watching out for the top part of the person, too,” O'Neal says.

Instructors don’t know what size a dog’s owner will be during the training process, but that hasn't been a problem so far. Incredibly, the dogs are able to figure out the height and width of their humans on their own. “If you’re an instructor that’s really short, but that dog goes to a person that’s really tall, that dog quickly learns and adapts that they have to look out for [obstacles] that are much higher,” O'Neal says. “To me that’s one of the most amazing parts of the job; how much the dogs adapt and do on their own that we don’t teach them and can’t teach them.”

9. Seeing Eye apprentices take classes on the human eye to learn more about visual impairments.

Every instructor’s apprenticeship includes courses on dogs and dog training, but they also take classes to learn about the vision issues faced by the students. “I’m currently studying for my second exam, which is on the human eye and diseases and disorders of the eye and optic nerve,” Indano says, likening these classes to a college course. “It gives us the basis of the language we use to communicate with our students. We’re reminded that not only do our students see us as dog professionals, but they also see us as vision professionals, as well.”

This level of understanding is made even greater during Blindfold Week—which exactly what it sounds like. “We wear a completely dark blindfold for one week, and we live with the students for the first week of class,” Indano says. “We’re given some prep on how to effectively use a cane for travel for the first two days of class, and are taught how to cross streets, how to judge traffic, and keep ourselves safe."

The apprentices are even paired with a dog during Blindfold Week, effectively putting them through the same training as the students. "It gives you a lot of insight into what these students are going through," Indano says.

10. Seeing Eye instructors don't prepare dogs to work 24/7.

Seeing Eye instructor with a black Lab.
Seeing Eye instructor Sarah Indano with a black Lab she trained.
Seeing Eye/Sarah Indano

Seeing Eye dogs don’t have the time to chase squirrels, accept pets from strangers, or sniff trash cans when they’re on the job, but that doesn’t mean they never get to enjoy being a regular dog.

“People think these dogs don’t ever get a break,” Indano says. “They put on their business suits, which for them is their harness, and they’re at work. When they go home, their business suit comes off, and they get to be a dog that their person can snuggle and give pets to and play fetch with ... They live and love to work for their owners, and they get to go home and get even more love.”

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