A Puppy with a Purpose, in Skippack
Purpose: The Montgomery County 4H Seeing Eye Puppy Club provides homes for puppies that later go on to serve blind people throughout the country and teaches these puppies social skills.
More information: Interested in becoming a puppy raiser? Check out The Seeing Eye Website and call The Seeing Eye Area Coordinator for your county.
Dogs terrified my son and daughter. Big dogs, little dogs, fat dogs, skinny dogs — it didn’t matter. When a dog crossed their path, my two children would scream and crawl up my legs into my protective arms or seek similar protection from my wife.
When our children were very young, their fear was understandable. As they grew out of toddlerhood, it became more troublesome. Friends and family had to quarantine their dogs when we came to visit. My wife and I felt it was time to help our children face their fear.
We thought about getting a puppy, but didn’t feel ready to make the necessary commitment. We did research, visited pet stores and dog breeders, and became more convinced that we were not ready for puppy ownership.
Acting on a recommendation from a friend, we found a solution that didn’t demand we become full-fledged pet owners. We became a foster family for a seeing-eye puppy — we temporarily adopted a puppy that, when grown, would act as a guide for a visually impaired man or woman.
But visually impaired or not, none of us can see into the future. My wife and I could not foresee what would happen next.
Skippack: The Seeing Eye Capital of Montgomery County
Skippack is the seeing eye capital of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Every month, the 4H Center in Skippack Township, located on 1015 Bridge Road/Route 113 (south of Skippack Pike), hosts the Montgomery County 4H Seeing Eye Puppy Club. To get a puppy, you must fill out an application and agree to attend monthly meetings.
The puppies come from The Seeing Eye, the longest-standing guide dog school in the world, located in Morristown, New Jersey. Typically, a puppy is 7 to 8 weeks old when placed with a family. The family takes care of their puppy for about a year before returning it to The Seeing Eye to be trained and eventually placed with a blind person.
For the visually impaired, these dogs provide opportunities to travel independently in cities and towns, and even around the world. Visually impaired people with guide dogs are better able to lead active lives.
Meet Iso: Welcoming a Foster Puppy into our Home
We put our names on the list to become puppy raisers. Within a couple months, we received a call from The Seeing Eye. They had a puppy for us. We welcomed Iso, a friendly black lab, into our home.
Iso quickly captured our hearts. As Iso became acclimated to our family, our kids outgrew their fear of dogs. Before long, if our kids saw a person walking a dog, they would approach and ask, “Can we pet your dog?”
During his stay with us, Iso grew from a small puppy to a full size 65 pound dog. His increased size didn’t scare our kids though. They loved him, big or small.
Mission accomplished. Or so we thought. But Iso had more lessons to teach.
Iso Faces a Test
Iso lived in our home more than a year before returning to The Seeing Eye for formal training. We felt sad to say goodbye, but excited about his future career guiding the visually impaired.
After eight months, Iso was ready for his town walk, an important milestone for seeing eye puppies. During the town walk, each puppy must guide a person through the town of Morristown, NJ.
We went to see Iso’s town walk, feeling proud as he guided his partner across busy streets and around obstacles. We were confident that Iso would soon be guiding a blind person.
But life takes unexpected turns, for both dogs and humans.
My Wife and I Face a Decision
About four weeks after Iso’s town walk, we received a phone call from The Seeing Eye. They had decided not to continue Iso through the program.
What happened? Every once in a while, a dog doesn’t pass. Some dogs leave the program due to health concerns like bad hips or poor vision. But Iso had a problem of a different nature: He was a little too social with other dogs.
When a puppy must leave the program, the original puppy raisers are given the first opportunity to adopt him or her. Now my wife and I had another decision to make. Should we allow Iso to go up for adoption to another family or welcome him back into our home?
When we started down this path, my wife and I resolved to become only foster parents to this puppy. The fact that the Seeing Eye Puppy Club required only a temporary commitment was one of the reasons why we joined. Now our resolution crumbled. My wife and I looked at each other, then at Iso, and smiled.
Iso trained us to become real, full-fledged dog owners.
Back to the Seeing Eye Puppy Club
Iso is now a permanent member of our family. It has been eight years since he first entered our home.
Last year, at Christmas time, we welcomed our second seeing eye puppy, Irwin, a yellow lab/golden retriever mix. So far, Irwin’s social skill development is going well. We’re hopeful he’ll succeed in training at The Seeing Eye and go on to a career as a guide for the blind.
It’s good to be back at the 4H Center for meetings. The puppy club has had a huge impact on my family. We’ve made some amazing friends. While we’re raising the puppies to help others, I’m convinced that the puppies help us too. They teach us about loyalty, sacrifice, and friendship and a lot about patience and love.
All of us, at one point or another, need someone to help guide us through life. I love you, Iso and Irwin.
Jon Stolpe is an engineer, family man, and friend of the Skippack Blogger. He lives in nearby Schwenksville with his wonderful wife, Leanne, and their two kids, Hannah and Isaac. He drives through Skippack every day on his way to work, and he enjoys date night in Skippack with his wife. Jon is also a writer and blogs daily at Jon Stolpe Stretched. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook or his blog.