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Seeing Eye Dogs a Tough Breed in New York City

By Serena Solomon | February 6, 2012 6:55am | Updated on February 6, 2012 7:03am
Guide Dogs
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Billy Figueroa

MANHATTAN — If a guide dog can make it here, it can make it anywhere.

New York City's seeing eye dogs have challenges not found anywhere else — including subways, sirens, crowds and even Central Park carriage horses. And the pooches must deal with them all if they're going to get a Big Apple placement.

“This city can be overwhelming to many a dog,” said Joan Markey, a master instructor with the Seeing Eye, a non-profit guide dog school, who has trained more than 500 dogs.

“I want to see that they have the initiative and the drive to work the crowds that you can only get in New York City."

Markey, along with other instructors, drove several animals into the city on a recent Tuesday morning for a process akin to "Survivor" for guide dogs.

“Anything our blind students might encouter, we need to take the dogs through,” said Markey, comparing most dogs to tourists on their initial city experience — both captivated and intimidated by a sensory overload of sights, sounds and smells.

To pair a visually impaired person with the right dog, instructors like Markey must determine not only skill levels, but also the dog's temperament, personality and anxiety levels. Some revel in the energy of the city. Others are better suited to a town or country life.

On the recent morning, a chocolate Labrador called Tootsie, was being put through her paces.  A “platform test” was the first challenge for the two-year-old. Tootsie was required to notify Markey when she came too close to the platform.

“’I am going to fight you to protect you,’” said Markey, commenting from a dog's point of view.  The act is known as “intelligent disobedience.”

As Markey directed the dog towards the drop-off to the tracks, Tootsie’ attempted to dig her claws into the platform and pull against her harness to notify Markey of the danger ahead.

“Good girl, good girl,” said Markey, as she rewarded Tootsie with lavish pats.  After several excursions into New York, Markey is leaning towards a city placement for the dog.

For Ocho, his Big Apple experience has not been so sweet. The German Shepherd lacked the confidence of Tootsie with his tentative approach to escalators and lack of initiative when weaving through crowds.

“You want to showcase them where they would do best,” said instructor Joy Planas, 29. At this stage in his training, Ocho would probably suit a country post, according to Planas.

The Seeing Eye began in Tennessee in 1929 and is now based in Morris Township, New Jersey. Each dog is bred by the Seeing Eye and is a German Shepherd, Labrador Retriever, Golden Retriever or Labrador Golden cross. More than 15,000 dogs have been paired with a blind partner by the organization, and all are about two-years-old when they go through training.

For Golden Labrador Erin, the first guide dog of Brooklyn resident Eliza Cooper, it took only two years of city living for her to burn out of the job.

“She just started to slow down and not want to work, said Cooper, 25, who works as a social media manager for the “Dialogue in the Dark” exhibition at the South Street Seaport. “And she let me know it.”

Erin was originally placed with Cooper when she attended at a small college in Connecticut a year before relocating to the city for work. They lived on the Upper East Side and Cooper partly blamed the chaos of the Second Avenue Subway construction for adding to the stress.

“The worry to keep me safe got to her,” she said. Erin has now retired to a family in New Jersey. 

Cooper is now paired with Harris, a three-year-old male Labrador who has an ability to just “get the job done” with less worry.

“It is actually fascinating. His whole attitude is different,” said Cooper, who has been blind since the age of three due to an eye condition called glaucoma coupled with cataracts.

“City dogs just have a level of toughness that other dogs don’t have,” she said.