What do you call a companion who gives you confidence? Who empowers you to perform the tasks of everyday life and spurs you to undertake new ones? Who enhances your life, keeps you safe, and helps you regain a sense of independence?
For Noah Wilker of Washington Township, that companion is called Honey. She’s his Seeing Eye dog.
Mr. Wilker, 41, has retinitis pigmentosa, an eye condition that causes loss of vision. “I started with Honey in early October,” he said. Honey was not his first Seeing Eye dog, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to go through the process of working with a new dog, he added, becoming emotional as he talked about that first dog. (He doesn’t want to use his dog’s name because he’s afraid that the family that raised the puppy would be heartbroken to learn that the dog had died.) Still, he said, he well understood the value of having such a companion.
Mr. Wilker was diagnosed with the degenerative eye condition when he was around 6. “My mom” — Simone Wilker, who is well known in the local Jewish community for her prodigious volunteer work — “noticed that I was having trouble navigating dark spaces,” he said. “The doctor said she was crazy,” but knowing something about young boys — she has four other sons, now ranging from their early 30s to their late 40s — she wasn’t convinced. Noting that her young son ran around normally when he was outside but stopped in the garage, she continued pressing until the doctor took her seriously.
Until he was 35, Mr. Wilker used a variety of visual aids, relying on a cane when he walked and taking advantage of the many accessible features on his electronic devices. Then he decided he would try a guide dog.
It turned out to be a good decision.
With a guide dog, he became “more comfortable,” he said. Having a disability “can test your confidence in yourself. A guide dog might not be for everybody, but for me it’s worthwhile. At one point, I didn’t think I would regain the independence I lost. But now I feel more confident.”
Although his vision is not entirely gone, by now, Mr. Wilker, says, it’s like “seeing through a pinhole,” and even that is possible only when there’s enough light. “Reading glasses help. So do the accessibility features” on his electronic devices. But having a canine companion takes it to a whole new level. When he hesitated about getting a second Seeing Eye dog, “my family pointed out that having a dog brought both emotional and physical support to my life. At the end of the day, I decided to do it.”
Mr. WIlker’s relationship with Honey began after they were matched tentatively and they lived together at a hotel-like facility that is part of the Seeing Eye campus in Morristown and is used specifically to facilitate the bonding of dogs and their potential owners. “The matches are usually good,” Don MacGowan, who has been an outreach volunteer for the organization for some nine years, said. The people and the dogs with whom they’ve been matched “live at the Seeing Eye for three weeks. Each person is assigned a room and matched up with a dog we think will be right for them. For the rest of the time, they’re roommates.”
The human partner learns to “bond with that dog, feed them, take them out,” he continued. “We take them downtown to Morristown to go over things the dogs have already learned. Now they have to learn to become a good team.”
“We were literally tethered unless we were sleeping,” Mr. Wilker said about his time in Morristown. “The connection hits you really hard. The first thing Honey did was give him a big lick, he recalled. He reciprocated with belly rubs, “and we rolled around the floor. She’s a beautiful dog, a mix of lab and golden retriever. She’s got a beautiful coat, big, beautiful eyes, and is incredibly affectionate.”
If Honey were not a guide dog, he said, she would have made a wonderful, fun pet. “She’s a normal dog, running around, always carrying around her bone.” Still — most important for him — “she is a laser-focused guide dog.”
Mr. MacGowan said that whether people are coming in for their second, third, or fourth dogs, “we insist they go through the same routine. With a different dog, there’s a different personality and set of reactions.” Should it happen, for some reason, that someone does not work well with the dog he or she’s been paired with, there always are more dogs to try.
Mr. Wilker knew from experience how important it was for him to have a dog. “It gives you a sense of safety to navigate without feeling worried about bumping into something or hurting yourself. You have free mobility to walk at a normal pace. You can’t do that with a cane.” That’s particularly true when you work in New York, as Mr. Wilker does — he works for Camp Tel Yehudah, a summer camp in Barryville, N.Y. During camp season he lives at camp, but the rest of the year he works in Manhattan.
The situation at work is “ever-changing,” he continued. “You never know which way people will move or go.” Honey, who is undaunted by the change of pace and scenery, stays under his desk while he works.
Mr. Wilker hopes that the camp will be open for business this summer. Last summer, covid closed that facility, as it did many others. Fortunately, Honey not only likes children but “in general is enamored with younger kids. She’s blown away by small humans. I think she’ll do fine.” After all, he said, she’s good around people and adapted well to city life.
“Guide dogs help so many people feel normal,” Mr. Wilker said. “They’re a godsend. I watched people in my class” — during the training at the Seeing Eye — “who never had dogs before. They were jubilant. It’s an empowering feeling.” Nevertheless, he added, “training is hard. There are good days and bad days. During the first week, we were training each other.”
Since Mr. Wilker and his first guide dog could read each other so well, the human partner often skipped signals the dog knew intuitively. Honey, who is well trained but whose relationship with him is not yet as intuitive as it eventually will be, reminded him to use the proper protocol.
In December, the Seeing Eye’s Don MacGowan Zoomed a presentation for the Jersey Hills section of the National Council of Jewish Women. “He gave fascinating details on how they breed and raise puppies to become Seeing Eye dogs and how they train them,” section member Susan Amsterdam said. The section has helped sponsor Lenox, a one and a half-year-old male puppy who will be trained as a guide dog, she added.
According to its website, the Seeing Eye was incorporated in Nashville in 1929. In 1931, the organization relocated to Whippany, because the climate in the northeast was more suitable for training dogs. In 1965, the cornerstone for the headquarters in Morris Township was laid, and renovations to the Washington Valley headquarters were completed in 2013. The 60-acre campus is home to the organization’s administrative offices, student residence, veterinary clinic, and kennels. In 2001, a breeding station was built on 330 acres in Chester, which houses the adult breeding dogs and puppies until they are eight weeks old. There is another training center in downtown Morristown, where most of the Seeing Eye’s training is conducted.
The Seeing Eye’s 15 outreach volunteers “visit schools, scouts, service clubs, senior citizens,” and any other groups that express an interest. Presentations are age-appropriate. For example, when he visited a kindergarten class, Mr. MacGowan talked about the five senses. Explaining that some people can’t see, he went on to stress the importance of independence, and how the Seeing Eye’s objective is to help blind people regain their independence. “I let the kids know you can live a good life without vision,” he said. “There are ways to do that.”
Mr. MacGowan explained that the organization breeds its own dogs, screening carefully for both physical attributes and behavioral traits. Dogs are a little over 2 years old when they are matched with owners and usually they can work for about eight years, depending on their health. Then the dogs retire and live as pampered pets. It costs owners about $150 to obtain their first dog from the Seeing Eye. For each subsequent dog, the owner is charged $50 tuition, which includes everything the person needs to obtain the dog, including transport to the Seeing Eye, room and board, the dog, and the dog’s equipment.
German shepherds, golden retrievers, and Labrador retrievers, “big enough to put on a harness to lug people around, smart dogs, good personalities, good hearing, vision, and sense of smell,” are the preferred breeds, Mr. MacGowan said. “Most important, they like to please, get along with people, and like to know what they’re supposed to do and to be praised for it.”
In selecting dogs to breed, he continued, the organization uses a complex analysis including health testing, training, temperament evaluation, and genetic analysis. “We breed about 500 dogs each year. That’s a lot of food, a lot of poop.” Each year, they graduate about 260 dogs, and “about 60 percent of the dogs we breed succeed through the program.”
The puppies’ first eight weeks of life are spent with the Seeing Eye. Next, they go out to live with a family for 14 to 15 months to learn basic obedience and house manners. Mr. Wilker said he believes that “puppy raisers are the most important part of the process.” He credits the dogs’ ability to be true companions to the time they spend with the families who take them in and raise them before they start to work.
“I became friendly with a family who’s done it for decades,” he said. Yes, he acknowledged, it’s hard for families to give up the dogs they’ve taken in, but they know the purpose of the training and accept it.
For many of those families, Mr. MacGowan said, raising Seeing Eye dogs is a way of life, “and their children take it on as well. It becomes part of their identity. There’s a network of about 500 families all over New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, and northern Delaware, a solid core of people.” If a dog doesn’t make it through training, the puppy raiser has the first right to take the dog back.
When they leave those training families, the dogs come back to the Seeing Eye and are matched with a trainer to learn the skills they will need. “The Seeing Eye dog’s real job is to keep its owner safe,” Mr. MacGowan said. After they become used to a harness and walking with a person, they’re taught how to walk down a sidewalk, and what to do at a curb, an intersection, or when they encounter obstacles. “You’ve got to keep on praising them,” he said. “Repetition and reinforcement is the byline of our training.”
His organization — which is subsidized completely by donations, although each dog takes about $70,000 to breed, raise, and train — sends trainers all over the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico to assess the needs of potential clients. How do clients live? Do they commute? Do they have routines? “It helps give clues about what kind of dog is best for them,” Mr. MacGowan said.
Mr. MacGowan, who is also involved with Seeing’s Eye’s financial development, said the organization is fortunate because “dogs are the best representatives you could have. There’s nothing cuter than a puppy.” Organizations can donate by naming a puppy in honor of, say, a beloved former president. He noted that the Abraham Lincoln School in Wyckoff is so “into it,” that the school raised $10,000 — for one puppy they named Abraham, and another one they called Lincoln.
For more information about the Seeing Eye, go to its website, SeeingEye.org.