Rockford wants to play. While a visitor sits with Katie Avagliano, CAS/MFA ’18, at the kitchen table of her Egg Harbor City, New Jersey, home, the 15-month-old German shepherd drops a green squeeze toy from his mouth onto the man’s lap. Every time he tosses the ball back onto the kitchen floor, Rockford doggedly pursues it, clamps his jaws around it, then returns it to the visitor.
Anyone who’s ever had a puppy knows that getting one to listen to commands can be as fruitless as trying to convince a teenager to put down the phone. But few people have as much experience with puppies as Avagliano. Rockford is the twelfth one she and her family have trained for the Seeing Eye, the oldest guide dog organization in the world. With one command—“rest”—Rockford lies on his stomach with his head on the ground. He’s perfectly still, brown eyes fixed on Avagliano.
He knows who’s boss.
“German shepherds are so smart. They love working. They love being with people,” Avagliano, 27, says. “Whatever time you put into them, they’ll put into you.”
Avagliano certainly has put in her 10,000 hours. Her career as a volunteer trainer began at age 11 with Igor, her family’s first Seeing Eye puppy. Next came Charlie (a black lab and one of only two non-shepherds), then Beau, Smokey, Pierce, Kramer, Diehl, Pax, Ralston, Wolcott, Jacob, and now Rockford. Unlike the others, Wolcott is still with the Avaglianos, merrily following Rockford around the house. He was among the roughly 40 percent of Seeing Eye puppies who don’t make it as full-fledged guide dogs.
It’s February 2020, and Rockford only has a few months before he’ll be returned to the Seeing Eye and immersed in intense training so he can be matched with a blind person. The Avaglianos likely never will see him again. If history is any indication, the family will receive their thirteenth puppy from the organization the day after Rockford leaves. It’s a cycle that has repeated itself for most of Katie’s life.
“People always ask, how do you give them up?” says Avagliano, who teaches creative writing at Rutgers University. “People just can’t imagine giving up a dog you’ve had for a year. It’s hard, but this way you always get a baby and they’re always cute. You send them back when they’re two and they go on to have a good productive life helping somebody.”
The Seeing Eye was formed in 1929 by philanthropist Dorothy Harrison Eustis and insurance salesman Morris Frank, the first blind person in the US to employ a canine guide. Since then, the school has trained more than 17,000 dogs and people to work together. Each year, it oversees the birth of 500 puppies—an equal split between Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, German shepherds and lab/golden retriever crosses. The organization has found those breeds to have the ideal combination of intelligence, eagerness, and size, along with coats that are fairly weatherproof, but not difficult to care for. When each dog is seven weeks old, it is sent to a volunteer.
Michelle Barlak, public relations specialist for the Seeing Eye, says the organization looks for volunteers from “all kinds of environments, families, and lifestyles” that reflect the diversity of the people with whom the dogs will eventually be partnered. But of course, “the family has to be committed.”
That certainly describes the Avaglianos. Katie’s parents, Peter and Peggy, adopted a pet dog when they bought their first house.
“Katie learned how to stand by grabbing the beard of our mutt, Jingle Belle, who would stand up and pull Katie up with her,” Peter says. “Jingle Belle was a very tolerant dog.”
Katie’s older sister, Christina, was the first Avagliano to become a volunteer puppy trainer. Katie followed a year later, and the family basically has had a Seeing Eye puppy ever since.
When they arrive at seven weeks old, Katie says, the dogs sleep almost the entire day. But soon life changes for both canines and humans.
“By 10 weeks they’re awake the whole time and they’re crazy and they have no commands,” she says. “The worst is 15 weeks when they’re strong enough to bite you. Your hand’s covered in red for weeks.”
The pups are only playing, she’s quick to point out, and by the time they are four or five months old they usually settle down. That’s when the Avaglianos start bringing the dogs with them everywhere they go so they begin to assimilate to the outside world. The pups sit quietly at their trainer’s feet in a restaurant, on the subway, or at the theater.
“You teach them to sit by teaching them to sit for their food,” Katie says. “With a tiny squirmy puppy that’s really hard. You put your hand on their chest as they’re running toward the food. You say, ‘sit,’ and then you push their butt down. You keep saying it. Once they sit for a couple of seconds, they get the food.”
The dogs sleep on the floor near their trainer’s bed, attached to a metal chain like they will be when they are permanently assigned to a blind person. They are taught to relieve themselves on command, usually twice a day.
Rockford seems to be thriving. He is attentive, intelligent, and eager to please. There have been just a few hiccups along the way.
“He is going through a period where he is afraid of people coming at him too quickly,” Katie says. “If people come to him with their hand down near his face, even if he’s working, he’ll back up. It’s not that big of a problem, but if he were to do that with a blind person, you don’t know where they’re going to back up to. He’s also afraid of people in costumes, which we probably wouldn’t know except my dad’s a theater director. He’ll bark at people if they’re in costume.”
Perhaps he won’t be paired with a stage actor. But when he reaches 16 or 17 months, he will be picked up by the Seeing Eye and begin the next phase of his training.
When they return to the Morristown, New Jersey, campus, the dogs undergo medical evaluations to ensure they are healthy enough to be working guide dogs. They are neutered or spayed unless they’ve been flagged for breeding consideration. Next, each is assigned to an instructor who works with eight dogs at a time. They’ll train with the teacher for four months before they are ready to be matched with a human.
The Seeing Eye considers a variety of factors when deciding which dog to pair with which person. Among the most important: the preferred pace of both the person and the dog.
About 260 dogs graduate from the program each year. The ones who don’t are either offered back to the their puppy trainer for adoption (that’s what happened with Wolcott, who developed anxiety while living in a kennel waiting for his match), sent to organizations at which they can develop other careers (like bomb sniffing), or put up for adoption to the general public (the waiting list is one to three years).
The Seeing Eye estimates that only 2 or 3 percent of people who are blind or visually impaired use guide dogs. The wait for a person to come to the Seeing Eye and participate in one of its classes is one to three months. The cost is a shockingly low $150 for a first-time student, and $50 for every subsequent session. Each dog costs the organization about $70,000, funds that are raised through private donations.
A guide dog’s primary job is providing its handler with a safe means of travel. The canine is all business when it’s accompanying its owner from place to place. But when the harness comes off, it can sniff and lick and lounge around the house to its heart’s delight. (But it still must be provided with regular relief, feeding, and exercise schedules.)
“It’s amazing to be able to see the transformation that takes place when somebody’s first matched with their dog,” Barlak says. “The dog doesn’t know the person, and a lot of the work the dog does for that person is because of the bond they have with them. In the beginning, it’s a little bit stressful, but by the time they leave, they are so confident and so happy, and you can see how much they feel their life has been changed by this dog.”
Gary Norman, WCL/LLM ’11, was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease, when he was 10 years old. Now 46, he’s legally blind and has counted on guide dogs to help him navigate the world since 2001, when he got Langer from Guide Dogs for the Blind in California.
“These dogs are incredible creatures that not only provide a service, but they impact our lives richly and immeasurably,” says Norman, a senior assistant attorney advisor at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. “For me, Langer not only improved my independence, which is the purpose of a guide dog, but he also added to my life personally. I believe that he and I built a special bond, as I have with each of my guide dogs.”
In 2010, he was paired with Pilot, and since 2017, he has worked with Bowie, a 5-year-old English Lab he obtained from Guiding Eyes for the Blind in New York. Each has been by Norman’s side for important landmarks in his life: Langer when he wed his current wife, Pilot when he completed his postgraduate degree from WCL and traveled to Ireland, and Bowie when he was installed as the chief executive at Mt. Moriah, a Masonic Blue Lodge in Towson, Maryland, in January 2020. At the same time, Bowie was named an honorary cochief executive, which felt natural to Norman. Working with a guide dog is an exercise in partnership.
“When we come to an intersection, Bowie is not in charge of getting us across,” he says. “I need to understand what is around us to determine whether to proceed forward. Bowie helps with that by listening to my commands and by agreeing with me if it is a good idea to cross or not. If I misjudge, a guide dog can engage in what’s called intelligent disobedience. If a car pulls in front of us, Bowie can stop or even back us up a little in order to get us out of harm’s way.
“A guide dog works on your left side, so I say he’s my left-hand man,” he says.
Katie Avagliano gets to see an earlier version of half of that magical relationship almost every day. On this one, as she feeds Rockford an ice cube (the only kind of “treat” he’s permitted), she looks lovingly at him while she pets his head. She knows she doesn’t have too many of these moments with him left.
“You fall in love with every dog,” she says. “You remember every single one of them. But they have a more important job to do. I hope the work we’ve done will prepare them for what they’re meant to do.”