8:17 a.m., Dec. 16, 2008----For Matthew and Katie Ginder-Vogel it all began in April, 2007, when they welcomed a black Labrador puppy named Fairfax into their family. It quickly became obvious that this fun loving pup was not an ordinary dog. Fairfax had a mission -- to become a guide dog for the blind.
During the 18 months that followed that fateful April day, Katie, who works at the Delaware Biotechnology Institute in a communications role for Delaware EPSCoR, and her husband Matt, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, exposed Fairfax to everything, from children and community events to office buildings and buses.
Now, they have sent him back to guide dog school to take his training to the next level.
The Ginder-Vogels are just two out of many participants nationwide and of numerous University of Delaware staff and students who raise puppies for Guiding Eyes for the Blind (GEB).
GEB is a nationally accredited, non-profit organization whose mission is to provide an independent lifestyle for the blind and visually impaired. For more than 50 years, GEB -- based out of Yorktown Heights and Patterson, N.Y. -- has provided training and lifetime support for its students from across the country.
In addition to being puppy raisers, the Ginder-Vogels are the region coordinators for Northern Delaware Guiding Eyes for the Blind.
For the past three years, the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at UD, through Matthew's cooperation, has hosted the GEB Northern Delaware regional meetings. Twice a month, the local puppy raisers come to these meetings to discuss progress, concerns and updates, and practice training techniques.
The Ginder-Vogels serve as contacts for local news sources, and recruit and train new puppy raisers. In addition, they provide local puppy raisers with pet sitters, medication, crates, collars and many other essentials.
GEB dogs are selectively bred, and between eight and nine weeks of age, puppies are placed in their homes. Before placement can occur, potential puppy raisers must receive comprehensive training themselves.
Then the puppy raisers can be properly matched with a pup that suits their lifestyle. GEB provides a crate for the puppy, a regular training session and covers all veterinary expenses. Raisers are responsible for the socialization, basic training and love of their puppies.
After a year of having a pup, GEB sends the raisers an official jacket for the pup to wear. This jacket lets everyone know that this dog is on a mission, whether it is sitting quietly under a table at a restaurant or in the workplace.
This volunteer experience is certainly unforgettable, and statistics show that approximately sixty percent of puppy raisers are repeat raisers, having raised a GEB puppy before.
In light of the fact that Fairfax is gone, the Ginder-Vogel's have received another pup to train, AJ. AJ spends one day a week socializing at DBI with Katie.
Not only is AJ being raised to become a guiding eye dog, he is honoring someone else's memory by being sponsored by a couple from the Baltimore-area, in memory of a family member who passed away.
Katie said, “Being able to raise AJ immediately after sending Fairfax to guide dog school has helped fill up the space Fairfax held in our lives and has given me renewed confidence in my ability to prepare a dog for one of the most important jobs he could have.”
It is no easy task to give up a pet that is an integral part of your daily life. Although saying goodbye is hard, it is definitely rewarding for the Ginder-Vogels to remember that they are helping the life of someone less fortunate.
Katie said, “The Guiding Eyes experience is so positive, and we are so well-supported by the organization, that many raisers get dog after dog, and it's exciting to think that Matt and I could be among them. I wanted to be that strong, and now I know that I am.”
In an article that she wrote about Fairfax entitled “A Gift of Love,” Katie said, “You don't get many chances to make a tangible difference to another person's existence, but I will. When my dog becomes a guide dog for a blind person, I will give that person the biggest gift of love I have ever given to another.”
Debbie Parrish, a former UD research scientist, is also a puppy raiser as part of the Delmarva chapter. The Delmarva chapter meets twice a month and is mainly used as a time for the pups to socialize. Parrish and her husband are raising an eight-month-old black Labrador named Ink.
Parrish said, “Socialization is also an important part of the pup's early life. Ink accompanies me on errands and trips where she can experience new sights and sounds. Training in areas with distractions such as people, others dogs, and traffic, will help provide Ink with the necessary confidence and skills that she will need as a future guide dog for a blind person.”
The GEB volunteer experience is one that is unique and treasured by each and every puppy raiser. Coming from different walks of life, the puppy raisers for Guiding Eyes for the Blind seem to come together for a common purpose, helping someone else gain the companionship and mobility that is taken for granted by so many people.
The gift of sight is precious and through puppy raising, individuals like Katie and many others have the chance to give the greatest gift of all.
Article by Rachael Dubinsky
Photo by Danielle Quigley