A local family is raising "Rocket" to be a guide dog with Guiding Eyes for the Blind

They say getting a dog is a big responsibility. The Coyne family of Fairport, however, has more responsibility than most: They’re raising a puppy to eventually become a guide dog with the Guiding Eyes for the Blind organization.

The Coynes — Christopher, Kristie, Olivia and Kendall — not only must do basic training with their dog, Rocket, but also must let the dog go after its training period, which is typically 12 to 16 months.

“Olivia and Kendall had been talking about getting a dog for quite a long time,” said Christopher Coyne, via email. “We knew that having our own pet would result in a long-term commitment and Kristie and I wanted to travel, which would be unrealistic with a family pet. We began to look into different options and discovered Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

“Raising a puppy gave us all the opportunity, and the girls the responsibility, of taking care of something that can’t take care of itself," he continued. "We discussed, as a family, how important our role would be in raising this dog. We all realize the magnitude of the responsibility of raising a guide dog ... these dogs are the conduit to someone’s freedom and living life with the things we take for granted.”

The process is not only a big responsibility, but it’s also expensive — but not on the Coynes' part, luckily.

“Guiding Eyes provides support over the lifetime of a guide dog team’s work together. This includes training, transportation to and from the school, room and board during the training program, and a lifetime of follow-up services,” said Kathy Zubrycki, vice president of training programs, via email.

“We estimate these costs, together with the cost to breed, raise, train and match a Guiding Eyes guide with someone who is visually impaired, at approximately $50,000,” Zubrycki continued. “Our services are completely free of charge for each student and we receive no government funding, so we rely solely on donors to help fulfill our mission.”

From birth to graduation, it takes about two years to raise and train a Guiding Eyes guide dog. In the first days and weeks of the puppy’s life, they work on early training and socialization. Then they continue with basic commands and obedience training over a 12- to 16-month period with their puppy raiser — in this instance, the Coynes — and ends with formal guide work training at the Yorktown, New York campus, when the dog is around 18 to 24 months old.

Then, once a dog is ready for guide work, Guiding Eyes will work hard to match them with a student based on the training program best suited for them, so if someone needs specialized training and support because of an additional challenge, like hearing loss, the dog will be trained specifically to meet those needs.

But having — and raising — puppies isn’t for everyone, and not for every dog. Guiding Eyes for the Blind says that its breeding colony consists of Labrador retrievers and German shepherds, as its professional breeding staff has collected data over the years that shows the health and temperament of those breeds make them the most likely to become successful guide dogs. They also  typically look for characteristics like being calm, easy to handle, confident, and not easily distracted.

As for those who raise the dogs?

“A love of dogs is a must! You’ll also need to determine whether raising a Guiding Eyes puppy matches your time, commitment, and interests. Raisers must be able to devote adequate time to exercise, train, and attend regular puppy classes during the evenings and weekends,” said Zubrycki.

The Coynes have had Rocket for about eight months, and will have him for about six to eight more months. More than enough time to get attached.

“As every single one of our family members can tell you, it’s impossible not to get attached to Rocket. Even though Rocket is not our family pet, he is part of our family,” Christopher said.

“In terms of being able to let Rocket go: some asked the question ‘how can you let him go?’ I say, ‘How can you not give him up, when you consider the cause and the bigger picture?’” Christopher added. “We all take for granted our hearing, our sense of touch and our eyesight. For someone who has lost their ability to see, this gives them the ability to live life more like we do.”

Christopher gave the example of a man named Terry McCain.

“Terry has come and spoken to our Monroe region of Guiding Eyes for the Blind puppy raisers on several occasions. Not only has he motivated us to understand our role better, but he has allowed us into a world will never understand totally — being visually impaired or blind," Christopher said. He tells us what he is now able to do (because he has Mac, his Guiding Eyes dog) that he couldn't before. Because he was not able to get around, Mac has opened a whole new world to him. His dog has given him the freedom to give back. Terry now travels to speak to help motivate current puppy raisers and spur others on to consider taking on a very worthy cause."

Visit https://www.guidingeyes.org/ for more information on Guiding Eyes for the Blind, or if you’re interested in helping.