Toronto Star

Proving ground for guide dogs


Innes, a youthful German shepherd, was trying to make his way across a frenetic Manhattan intersecti­on near Central Park and found himself facing down all sorts of projectile­s — yellow cabs, bike messengers, pedicabs — as a deafening truck horn blasted and the traffic light changed against him.

But Innes was not negotiatin­g this chaotic scene while out for an afternoon stroll. He was safeguardi­ng his new master, Kathy Faul, 73, a blind woman from Swarthmore, Pa.

Both were relative strangers to New York City, but they had ventured into Manhattan expressly for moments like this, to experience its particular brand of street-level chaos, as the culminatio­n of a thorough course of training by the Seeing Eye, a guide dog school in Morristown, N.J. Founded in 1929, it is the nation’s oldest training school for dogs and one of the largest of its kind. It even holds the trademark for the phrase “seeing eye.”

The school’s training is done in a suburban setting far calmer than Midtown Manhattan, an hour’s drive away. But for its ultimate challenge, and to assess a dog’s focus, trainers take the student-dog pairs into Manhattan as something of a proving ground.

“There’s no more intense place than New York City to train the dogs — it’s the craziest environmen­t they’ve ever been in,” said Brian O’Neal, a Seeing Eye trainer. “At the end of the training, the idea is, ‘OK, they know the basics. Now can they handle the grind of the city?’ ”

To find out, Faul and another blind woman, Val Gee, 26, had arrived in a van to experience these extreme urban conditions, along with their dogs.

“I’m half scared, half so excited,” said Faul, gripping the stiff leather handle strapped to Innes. “But I figure, like the song says, if I can make it here, I can make it anywhere.”

Dogs who do not do well in an urban setting can be paired with owners who tend not to be city-goers. Owners train alongside their dogs while boarding at the school for several weeks. Their stay culminates with the trip to Manhattan.

While not exactly a test, Manhattan’s conditions present the dogs with intense conditions that can help reveal training aspects to work on.

“It’s a training experience that offers more than anywhere else we can take them,” said Dave Johnson, director of instructio­n and training at the Seeing Eye. “Almost anything can happen in one day in New York — it’s a culminatio­n of sensory overload, even for humans.”

Even for dogs and owners who do not visit cities, urban training can help prepare them for chaotic situations, such as shopping malls or carnivals, he added.

 ?? DAVE SANDERS THE NEW YORK TIMES ?? Kathy Faul, 73, from Swarthmore, Pa., exits a subway train with her new seeing eye dog, Innes.
DAVE SANDERS THE NEW YORK TIMES Kathy Faul, 73, from Swarthmore, Pa., exits a subway train with her new seeing eye dog, Innes.

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