10 Secrets of Seeing Eye Dog Trainers
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 owners 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 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 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.
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 stoplight 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 is 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 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.”
A version of this story originally ran in 2020; it has been updated for 2021.