Dogs raised by Michele Khol of Vienna now perform various duties around the world, including detecting bombs for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, sniffing out contraband for the Attorney General of Mexico City and providing security for the king and queen of Jordan.
One was recently a ring-bearer at a wedding in San Diego, while another aids an autistic boy to get around in New York City.
For 10 years, Khol and her family have been “puppy raisers” for the nonprofit group Guiding Eyes for the Blind.
“It started with my daughter, and eventually my whole family got involved,” said Khol. “We have raised 15 dogs so far and have kept up with their various careers over the years.”
For 20 years, Guiding Eyes for the Blind’s North Virginia-based Dominion Puppy Raising Region has raised nearly 500 puppies to become guide dogs for blind and visually impaired as well as providing detection dogs to various federal law enforcement agencies, police departments and others in need of service dogs.
In 2008, the school launched Heeling Autism, a service dog program designed to provide safety and companionship for children with autism. Guiding Eyes provides all of its services at no cost and is dependent upon contributions to fulfill its mission.
The Dominion region volunteers, currently about 18 of them, are each given an 8-week-old Guiding Eyes pup to love, nurture and educate for 12 to 16 months with the goal of returning a well-socialized young adult dog for formal guide dog training at the organization’s Canine Training Facility in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.
The dogs are bred by the organization’s Canine Development Center in Patterson, N.Y., where specific breeds such as Labradors and German Shepherds are carefully bred to phase out negative genetic dispositions.
“The facility breeds out issues such as hip and elbow dysplasia, which tend to occur in those breeds,” said Kevin Simpson, a Dominion region puppy trainer.
Weekly puppy raising classes are run in Vienna by Simpson and Guiding Eyes’ Regional Manager, Carrie Barnett, to support raisers and their pups.
Dogs that turn out to not be equipped to specifically become guide dogs often become service dogs in other capacities.
“Guide dog work is the most intensive and difficult service work, and dogs aren’t born with the skills to keep a blind person safe or sniff out contraband. They are carefully trained and prepared for those jobs,” Barnett said.
For the past six years the volunteer raisers from across Fairfax County, Arlington and Alexandria have gathered Sunday afternoons at Vienna Presbyterian Church for their weekly puppy raising class.
As of Feb. 15, however, the group will be without a home.
“They told us the odor and clean-up has become too much for them,” Barnett said. “I don’t know if that is really the issue, though, because we are very meticulous, and all our pups are housebroken.”
Mary Monie, the church’s administration coordinator, said the real issue is the church is too small and ill-equipped for canine training.
“It really is a cleanliness issue,” she said. “Only part of our floor is tiled. The other areas are carpeted and not really made for animals. A larger, fully tiled room that can be mopped and easily cleaned would be much better. Also, because of their training, the raisers also use our stairs and elevators, and those who use our facilities after the dogs have been there have made mention of a lingering odor.”
Monie said she has made some alternate facility recommendations to the group.
“Since our raisers come from many different areas, we’re hoping to find a convenient, central location with easy highway access to minimize their travel,” Barnett said. “Ideal towns include Vienna, Fairfax, Springfield, Arlington, Falls Church, Annandale and Oakton.
Barnett said the raisers are in need of a large room without carpeting, preferably close to an outside exit and on the main floor. The location should be equipped with chairs, tables, bathrooms, outdoor waste receptacles and some parking. During class, pups and handlers work together mostly with a leash, but some off-leash work and pup play is also incorporated. An available staircase for pups and handlers to use would also be beneficial, but isn’t a necessity, she said.
Northern Virginia volunteers hope to be able to continue training locally and hope someone can offer the use of a new training facilty.
“Each time I raise a puppy for Guiding Eyes, it is such a gratifying journey,” seven-time puppy raiser Janet Bartolotta of Alexandria said. Bartolotta’s sixth pup, Adela, has recently begun as a full-fledged guide dog alongside Matthew Brown, a visually impaired seventh grade teacher in Queens, N.Y. “Seeing the young, affectionate, spirited pup I raised begin her journey with Matt -- and witnessing firsthand the bond they had already begun to develop -- was the best gift of all,” Bartolotta said.
Those interested in donating space are encouraged to contact Carrie Barnett at 410-960-7427.