Pat Hayes had retired as a school social worker and was looking for something to do when she saw a photo in a newspaper of a girl with a special puppy.
So the Vineland woman decided to get one too, but only for a year, while she raises him to be a Seeing Eye dog.
"We'd had dogs in the past, but not for awhile, and I wasn't sure I wanted the long-term commitment of a pet," Hayes said.
She will raise her puppy, Denton, for about a year, taking him through obedience training, and on field trips to different environments.
"He goes to church with us, and to the second grade class in Maurice River Township where I volunteer," she said.
He also takes trips to see the grandchildren.
"My kids were so excited when mom got the pup," Hayes' daughter, Suzie Dalgleish, of Millville, said.
The Seeing Eye Puppy Raising Program is part of Seeing Eye, a non-profit organization in Morristown, Morris County, that trains seeing eye dogs. Begun in 1929, more than 16,000 specially bred and trained dogs have been matched with more than 8,000 blind partners according to the group's website.
In 1942 the school partnered with 4-H to create puppy-raising clubs. Though today not all clubs are affiliated with the 4-H, many still are, and it is often children who raise the first puppy in a family.
Peter Avagliano's daughter, Christina, got their first puppy, Igor, when she was in eighth grade. She's 22 now, and Avagliano's four children have helped raise seven puppies in their Galloway Township home.
Avagliano is now leader of the People and Puppies At Work for Sight, or PPAWS 4-H Club that covers Atlantic and Cape May counties. They currently have three families, but have had as many as 20 and are working to recruit more.
Avagliano said the program is a great way to teach children responsibility, and that life changes. He said it is hard to give the pups back after their year, but the family has learned to be proud of the work the dogs will do and their role in training them.
"It is emotional," he said. "Christina cried when Igor left. But then within a few weeks we got another puppy."
He said people will ask how they can bear to part with the dogs, but he views it as similar to raising a child and sending them off to college.
"The dogs are ready to work and do something with their lives," he said. "And my wife says it is also a great life lesson that you can have loss without death. The dogs are going on to do something good. It's very rewarding."
Christine Higham, of Toms River, is the program coordinator for most of South Jersey and is currently overseeing the raising of 70 puppies. She had her first exposure to the program when she was just 4 years old and her older brother got a puppy.
She said raising a puppy is a great family activity, and also opens the door to other 4-H activities. Interested families are interviewed, then typically do some puppy-sitting before a final decision is made.
"It is a lot of work," she said. "We talk to a lot of people and I tell them to come visit and see what's involved before deciding. You are making a commitment to the puppy and to the club."
Joan Maloney, of Upper Deerfield Township, is leader of the Cumberland County 4-H Puppy Power Club. Patty, a 10-month-old Golden Retriever, is her 15th dog, the first, like the Avaglianos, started with her daughter.
The club has nine families, meets monthly, and also takes puppies on outings to get them accustomed to different environments. Patty has been bowling, taken the ferry and gone to museums.
Every trip includes an emergency bag to clean up after the young puppies, who will have the occasional accident. Hayes, Maloney and Dalgleish had to clean up after a puppy during a visit to a class at the Mt. Pleasant Elementary School in Millville, where Maloney did a presentation for students who had been studying braille. The students got to pet the dogs, and the pups got a lesson in behaving around children.
Seeing Eye puppies do not get the same legal access to buildings as official Seeing Eye dogs, but Maloney said many locations are cooperative if asked first. The puppies wear green Seeing Eye scarves when they are working.
Maloney said the dogs have to be trained not to bark, jump up, or get distracted by passing squirrels or food. They typically avoid restaurants.
"People say, 'oh you get to take your dog everywhere,' but it's a lot of work to make sure they behave," she said. "And you always have a cleanup bag."
The pups, usually labradors, German Shepherds or Golden Retrievers, are bred by the Seeing Eye. After their year with a family they return to Seeing Eye where they are evaluated medically, behaviorally and temperamentally before beginning official training with an instructor and the person with whom they will be matched.
Higham said more than 70 percent of the puppies make it into the Seeing Eye training program, and 80 percent of those are successfully matched.
Avagliano said half of their dogs were accepted. One had a medical problem, one could not stop chasing cats, and one was just a sweet, but not very ambitious, dog named Kramer who preferred laying on the couch to working.
The family kept Kramer, who went off to college with Avagliano's son. His youngest daughter, Amanda, is scheduled to get the family's seventh pup in April.
Higham said once the dog is trained the family is invited back to see them at work, and once they are placed they get a photo of the dog and owner.
"It really tugs at your heartstrings that they are placed and have reached their destiny," Maloney said. "You talk to someone who has received a dog and it has changed their lives."
Contact Diane D'Amico:
For more information
Those interested in raising a Seeing Eye Puppy can get information on how to apply at seeingeye.org