Some Superheroes Wear a Vest by Adrianna Donat
Jethro the Seeing Eye puppy was frightened of trains. It was almost impossible for his puppy raiser to keep him from balking and whining when a train entered the station.
“I knew if we couldn’t get him to board a train he’d be released from the program,” says Monica Cullen, a Maplewood resident, currently raising her fourth Seeing Eye puppy. So she asked Janet Keeler, a volunteer who’s been training Seeing Eye puppies for 37 years, and is co-leader of the Essex County Puppy Club.
“Janet said I needed to keep Jethro moving to help calm his nerves. She got on the train with two other dogs to show him how it works. Then I got him going and we made it up on the third try,” says Cullen of their first trip from Maplewood Station to Morristown. She gets misty-eyed as she explains how Jethro’s trainer later mentioned that now he loves trains so much he could be considered for a blind person who is a city commuter.
“It’s such a rewarding experience,” says Cullen, “to know I helped Jethro overcome his fear.” Someday Jethro may be helping a blind person board a train each day. And Cullen helped that happen.
Cullen’s is one of many Essex County Puppy Club stories. The Puppy Club is a group of families that raises Seeing Eye puppies for the first 14 to 16 months of their lives. A Seeing Eye puppy wears a special scarf or vest. Just look around the SOMA area, and you’ll see a lot of them.
“We have six families currently raising Seeing Eye puppies in the South Orange-Maplewood area,” says Carmella Passaro, co-leader of the Puppy Club. She and Keeler met in the early 1980s, when both of them had kids who asked to raise Seeing Eye puppies.
Now Keeler has a granddaughter who has raised Seeing Eye puppies. Passaro and Keeler continue to raise puppies for the program, too. “I’ve done Seeing Eye pups forever,” jokes Keeler.
Says Cullen of her experience, “Maplewood is a great town to get exposure for your dog. I like to walk my puppy around town and sit at the train station. I can also sit at the Able Baker and get exposure to other dogs. It’s really charming around here, and a perfect setting for Seeing Eye puppies.”
The Essex County Puppy Club is an important part of The Seeing Eye. The oldest guide dog organization in the United States, The Seeing Eye is headquartered in Morristown and oversees the raising of more than 500 puppies each year. People come to Seeing Eye from all over the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico to be matched with their perfect guide dog.
A family raises the puppy until it’s about 14 months old and then brings it to The Seeing Eye, where it spends the next four months with an instructor, learning the specifics of guiding visually-impaired people. But prepare yourself for this day, because once the puppies are brought to the instructor, you can watch them, but the pups won’t be able to see you. “It’s too confusing for the puppies,” says Keeler.
“It’s heart-wrenching to bring them back, but you know they are off to a good life,” says Cullen. She jokes that when the puppies are brought back to Seeing Eye, “it’s like sending your kids to college. Except the puppy doesn’t call you to ask for money.”
After the dog’s training is complete, the most important part of the process starts: matching the dog’s personality with a visually-impaired person. Most dogs are matched in six months, but sometimes the process can take up to 18 months because The Seeing Eye works hard to make sure the pups and their new family are perfectly compatible. Once a match is made, a visually-impaired person will spend three to four weeks working with his or her new guide dog.
Many Seeing Eye dogs have a working life of up to 10 years. At the end of that time they have the option to stay in their present situation, come back to their puppy family, or go into the coveted adoption program for senior Seeing Eye dogs.
The Essex County Puppy Club prepares its puppies for this life by taking them on several trips each year, including an overnight trip to Washington DC and another to Newark International Airport. But the main event for Puppy Club members is the holiday trip from Maplewood Train Station to New York Penn Station in early December.
“Usually we have about 20 puppies, all wearing a vest or a scarf,” says Keeler. “We meet at the Maplewood Train Station and travel into New York City to see the holiday attractions.” Their arrival at Penn Station is “like the parting of the Red Sea,” says Cullen. “The crowd dissolves to let us through, and strangers stop to take photos. Some want selfies with the dogs.”
The parade of puppies makes its way up to Bryant Park, allows their people to do some shopping, and walks to Radio City to see the tree. Puppies and handlers check out the holiday window display at Macy’s and have lunch at Bubba Gump’s before making their way back home – a long day for the puppies, many of whom fall asleep on the train trip back to Maplewood.
If you are interested in being part of the Essex County Puppy Club, here are a few things to know: You must be at least 9 years old (“raising a Seeing Eye puppy makes a great mitzvah project,” says Keeler); and be prepared to spend time with the puppy (this is best if someone works from home, but someone with a reliable friend or dog walker can work too). Your whole family needs some training as well – and should not be allergic to dogs (hypoallergenic dogs are not available). Finally, you need to attend meetings two or three times each month.
If you meet these qualifications and are still interested, call The Seeing Eye at 973-539-4425. Says Carrie Glasser, who along with her daughter, Talia White, has raised four Seeing Eye puppies, “When you’re raising a Seeing Eye puppy, you feel like you’re doing something nice. But you get so much more for yourself.”
And most important, the time you spend with a Seeing Eye puppy is not only fun for you, it also helps someone live an independent life. (“I feel like I’m floating on air with my Seeing Eye dog,” reports one visually-impaired man. “Thank you!”)
“This is a labor of love,” says Cullen. “These dogs are superheroes.” But these superheroes wear a vest instead of a cape.