Guiding lights

Gloucester County residents volunteer as puppy raisers for The Seeing Eye, teaching canines confidence on their way to becoming guide dogs

Members of the Seeing Eye Puppy Raisers of Gloucester County club are, standing from left, Bekah Verdiek with Nougat, George and Josh Carter with Poppy, Becky Langer with Rosie, and sitting from left, Jaclyn Bird with Marcus, club leader Nancy Mittleman, and Robin Brelsford with Zazu. (Kaitlyn Langer/Special to The Sun)

After more than 20 years, Nancy Mittleman made the decision to walk away from working in the financial industry and instead do something that would make a difference in the community. 

At the time, she just wasn’t sure what that philanthropic endeavor would be.

It turned out the answer, unbeknownst to Mittleman, was right at her church.

One evening when stopping by Trinity United Methodist in Mullica Hill for volunteer work involving food pantry Your Place At The Table, of which Mittleman is vice president, she saw people entering the church with dogs. 

“I stopped somebody and said, ‘What’s going on here?’” Mittleman recalled. “They told me it was the location where they meet for their monthly Seeing Eye puppy raiser group.”

A self-professed dog lover who grew up with puppies, Mittleman requested more information. She learned that the group of local residents – Seeing Eye Puppy Raisers of Gloucester County – volunteered for The Seeing Eye, a nonprofit based out of Morristown. 

The Seeing Eye serves, on average, 260 people who are blind or visually impaired each year. Since its founding in 1929, the organization has been responsible for more than 17,000 partnerships between individuals and dogs – at the cost of approximately $70,000 each. The Seeing Eye is supported by contributions from individuals, foundations, corporations, bequests and other planned gifts, with no government or insurance funding.

The more Mittleman learned, the more she realized this would be a fulfilling venture for not only herself, but also her whole family.

“I thought it was a great opportunity to have a puppy in the house and to be able to teach my children some responsibility,” Mittleman said.

That was 10 years ago, and Mittleman has raised seven puppies for the nonprofit since then. Spending the majority of the past decade as a puppy raiser for the Gloucester County club, Mittleman stepped into a new position – puppy educator – three and a half years ago, and recently took on the role of group leader.

“Our job is to love them,” Mittleman said of the puppies. “To create calm, confident dogs that will grow up to be calm, confident guide dogs.”

A Seeing Eye puppy will arrive at its volunteer puppy raiser’s home at just seven weeks old. The next approximate 15 months will be spent learning basic obedience, some specialized obedience (such as learning to eliminate on command), and, as Mittleman said, how to be a calm, confident and loving dog. 

“Part of our job is teaching obedience and house manners, which are extremely important for a guide dog. Those house manners have to translate into public-space manners,” Mittleman said.

There are approximately 500 puppies born to The Seeing Eye each year – primarily German shepherds, Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and Labrador/golden retriever crosses. There are about 500 volunteer puppy-raiser families. Right now, 15 of them are in Gloucester County, and Mittleman would love to see that number grow.

“Not every one of them has a puppy currently,” Mittleman said, adding that some people will take a break between puppies.

This could mean a break of a few months, a few years or, in volunteer Becky Langer’s case, more than two decades. 

Langer first discovered The Seeing Eye at a 4-H Fair, where she signed up and started raising puppies as a middle schooler. She raised five puppies (and her brother raised three) before heading off to college in 1991. After getting married and having kids of her own, she got involved once again in 2013.

Langer said while it’s fun having the puppies, it’s equally as enjoyable getting to know the other volunteer puppy raisers.

“There’s this group of people you get to know through your club. You get to socialize with them, we go on club outings, we do fun things with the puppies,” Langer explained, though outings are currently limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “You get to know these people and they become part of your family.”

This extended family isn’t just for socialization: Everyone can depend on one another, from getting advice for a puppy problem to having a babysitter for puppies during day trips or vacations.

“Our group is a community, and we help each other out,” Mittleman said. “It is our job as a member of this club to volunteer not only to raise your own puppy, but to help out those in the club. It’s a group effort. 

“They say it takes a village – and that’s true for us, too.”

Members come from all walks of life – retirees and young professionals, individuals and couples, teenagers, and young families with children. The latter is popular because, like with Mittleman’s thinking, raising Seeing Eye puppies is a fun family activity and a great way to teach children about both responsibility and helping others.

“It’s very much a family activity,” said volunteer Robin Brelsford. “It’s a good way of paying it forward.”

Brelsford started volunteering when her children were teenagers 18 years ago, and she is now raising her 15th puppy – Zazu, a golden retriever. She said the hardest part of raising Seeing Eye puppies is when it’s time to give them back, which will be soon for Zazu.

“They take a piece of your heart when they leave, and it’s theirs to take. You hope they are becoming a really great guide dog,” Brelsford said. “You comfort yourself that he’s not gone, he’s just off to new adventures that don’t include me.”

Once a puppy returns to The Seeing Eye, they start working with a trainer to learn the intricacies of becoming a guide dog. A postcard arrives in the mail when the puppy passes training, and puppy raisers have an opportunity to see their former pup in action by visiting The Seeing Eye and watching the dog and its trainer. They can’t, however, interact with the dog and must maintain distance at all times. The last communication is a letter sharing vague details on the dog’s placement with a person who is blind or visually impaired.

“While it’s a very emotional experience for the people involved, it’s also so rewarding because you know you’re doing your part in helping a blind person obtain independence and dignity,” Mittleman said.

Of course, not every puppy becomes a guide dog. The Seeing Eye has about a 60 percent success rate with its puppies, including dogs that become guides or enter the breeding program. That means dogs who do not graduate have “career changes” to other programs, are adopted out or end up rejoining their puppy raiser’s family permanently.

Of the 14 she has raised, volunteer Brelsford has adopted back two of her puppies who could not continue on as guide dogs. Mittleman also currently has a dog she raised for the program. After moving on for formal training, it was discovered Tarik had elbow dysplasia, which kept the German shepherd from becoming a guide dog. When this happens, the first person who is given the opportunity to adopt the dog is the puppy raiser.

“We do tons of therapy now,” Mittleman said, explaining she and Tarik spend time working at the Philadelphia International Airport, local hospices, Rowan University and as a part of Crisis Response Canines.

Mittleman isn’t raising a puppy right now, but she doesn’t consider herself retired from puppy raising. She took over as club leader during the COVID pandemic, and one of her goals is to increase membership. Of course, the pandemic has made it difficult to draw new members into the club, limiting volunteers’ public outings and community event involvement. 

Those interested in volunteering as puppy raisers are encouraged to contact the Gloucester County group through its Facebook page and reach out through the phone number on The Seeing Eye website. They can fill out an application and start attending monthly meetings to see what’s it’s all about. Mittleman also encourages potential volunteers to puppysit while they’re waiting to get approved. In fact, for those people who want to volunteer but can’t take on a puppy right now, puppysitting is a great way to get involved with the club.

Mittleman hopes people understand what an amazing organization The Seeing Eye is.

“I joined for the puppies. I stay for the people. It really is an amazing group of people that are so kind. The kind of people that this volunteerism attracts are just people who have good hearts. They’re wonderful for the puppies, but they’re wonderful as friends,” Mittleman said. “I would love to be able to share that with people in the community and grow our group to be even bigger.”

To learn more, visit Seeing Eye Puppy Raisers of Gloucester County at www.facebook.com, or check out The Seeing Eye online at www.seeingeye.org