Navigating the streets of even a small metropolis like White Plains is an effort for a blind person. Foot and vehicle traffic is difficult to gauge; curbs, stairs, escalators and garbage receptacles turn streets and indoor spaces into an obstacle course.
And every weekday, staff from the Guiding Eyes for the Blind train a group of dogs in downtown White Plains to help make the lives of blind people around the world more mobile. The organization, based in Yorktown Heights, owns a house downtown that serves as its headquarters for training its guide dogs, around 95 percent of which are Labrador retrievers.
White Plains is the last stop for the dogs, who are bred on the Yorktown campus, move to Peekskill to receive early acclimation in an urban setting and then come to White Plains for their last stop before placement.
“The dogs allow a blind person to live an independent and normal lifestyle,” said Michelle Brier, events and marketing manager at Guiding Eyes for the Blind. “That’s what we’re all about.”
One of around a dozen accredited guide dog schools around the world, Guiding Eyes, founded in 1954, places about 170 dogs with blind handlers every year, along with 10 others placed with autistic children. It costs around $45,000 to train and match a dog with a suitable recipient, who pays nothing to receive a dog but does contribute to the animal’s maintenance once a placement has been made. Funding comes from corporations, foundations and individual donations.
Blind people seeking a guide dog must complete a rigorous 26-day course with hands-on training, including 40 hours of training with their dog that includes numerous dry runs around White Plains. The school rigorously screens each applicant. About 70 percent of blind people live below the poverty level and a dog means freedom to get to work or school.
“We check out their house and their lifestyle,” said Brier. “If someone has a house that’s not safe for dogs, or an aggressive second dog in the home or a messy house, they have to change those things. We’re not going to put one of our dogs in that environment. They’re not meant to be pets, they are mobility aids.”
Not every dog bred by the organization makes the cut. Around 30 percent are given up for adoption. Those who progress through the program are carefully matched with a client’s walking speed and other factors.
On the streets of White Plains, around 10 dogs per weekday take hour-long training runs. One recent afternoon, qualified guide dog instructor Jessy DiNapoli led tan-colored Frito around the streets. The training is food-based, so DiNapoli carried a pouch full of snacks that she used to reward Frito every time the dog did something well, like stopping at the curb or at the head of a set of stairs.
“That’s her salary,” DiNapoli said about the food. “They like to please their owners but they have to earn something more for doing their jobs. Basically, we’re trying to get them to do things that are against their nature, like stay disciplined and avoid interacting with other dogs or people.”
The challenge for DiNapoli is to figure out how each dog learns and adjust her techniques accordingly.
Besides the frequent snacks, there are other perks for guide dogs. “They don’t have to sit at home for eight to 10 hours while their owner is at work, they get to go places,” said Brier. “Recipients are encouraged to play with the dogs and groom them, since they need down-time, too.”
Taking off like a jackrabbit down the sidewalk, with her tail wagging, Frito clearly loves the job. A dog like Frito replaces a blind person’s cane and complete trust is placed in the dog. Even a place like Barnes & Noble bookstore can be a minefield: tables stacked with books stand in the middle of aisles and people dart out from behind the bookshelves. Frito did a great job steering clear of any collisions.
Guiding Eyes has been at it for so long in White Plains that its handlers and dogs are a familiar fixture in the city. At City Center, the owners put plastic models of guide dogs near the escalators (that look a lot like Frito), which serve as life-size piggy banks for donations.
“People are very familiar with us in White Plains,” said DiNapoli. “They say hello, see the harness and ask questions. It’s a great place to do this training.”