Perky Nellissen and 8-month-old Ziti pose together at their Little Compton home. Nellissen and Ziti are both going through guide dog training for the first time.
Perky Nellissen teaches …
One minute 8-month-old yellow Labrador retriever Ziti is discovering the wonders of mulch or flying bugs, and the next she’s at Wilbur’s General Store wearing her service dog vest and life is all business.
As a Guiding Eyes for the Blind puppy-in-training, Ziti, who lives with her puppy raiser Perky Nellissen in Little Compton, has started her journey to become a service dog companion to a person with vision loss, and both puppy and raiser are out and about and making new friends.
“She goes everywhere with me,” says Perky. “It’s been really rewarding to see how people react to her and to see her learn and grow from her experiences.”
As a volunteer, Perky is an integral part of the process of turning a young, untrained and excitable pup into a future well-trained service dog. “It’s really important that very early on the puppies are socialized to human experiences,” says Maureen Hollis, Guiding Eyes for the Blind’s regional manager for Rhode Island puppy raising.
“And volunteers like Perky, who take them into their homes at 8 weeks and keep them for 16 to 18 months, are what make that happen.”
Guiding Eyes for the Blind, based in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., is a nonprofit organization that provides guide dogs, along with residential training, for people with vision loss, all free of charge. It can take up to three years and about $50,000 to breed, raise and train a dog, Hollis says. One of the first and most important steps is matching puppies with volunteer raisers who will take them into their homes. Guiding Eyes puppy-raising regions span 14 states, including Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island.
“We’re not looking for professional dog trainers,” says Hollis. “We’re looking for people who are friendly, happy and willing to take these puppies in to help train them, all while putting themselves in the shoes of someone who might have a disability and need one of our dogs.”
There are guidelines that come with taking in a puppy, she adds, that raisers must follow. They must attend weekly basic obedience puppy classes for the first 12 weeks in East Greenwich, then twice a month after; keep the dog leashed when outside and keep them crated overnight. “These are all things that prepare them for their future lives as service dogs, so they are very important,” Hollis says.
Along with basic obedience and ‘house manners,’ a major part of the training period is taking them out to get socialized.
“After they’re properly potty trained, they can begin to go in restaurants, doctors’ offices, stores, farmers’ markets, see parades, see people pushing things and carrying things; to be where people are so they are properly exposed,” says Hollis. All veterinary expenses are paid for, as well as a crate and collar.
In the beginning, Perky says, it was tough. “Several times in the first three months I wanted to give her back,” she laughs. “All she did was bite and bark every time I’d try to teach her a new skill. But after talking to Maureen, I realized she just didn’t understand yet what I was asking her to do, so we kept trying; after about the fourth month it was like a switch turned on and she became more laid back. Now, at almost 8 months, she doesn’t have that puppy angst anymore, and we go out all of the time. We go to Lees Market and I put her leash around my arm and push the cart. I took her in the dressing room at a clothing store recently, and she just laid down next to me while I was trying things on. I took her to the airport and she did great, so now I’m thinking of taking her on a short train ride out of Providence.”
Always looking for ‘raisers’
While she’s out and on duty, no one is allowed to pet Ziti, but Perky is happy to answer any and all questions. “I know Guiding Eyes really needs puppy raisers, so I put up flyers about the program and am always happy to talk about Ziti,” she says. “Really the best advertisement is just meeting her.”
“It takes a community to help raise a dog like Ziti,” says Guiding Eyes’ Maureen Hollis. “Ziti gave Perky a run for her money those first few months, but she was right there for the challenge. She wasn’t rattled, found the humor in Ziti and kept her patience. That’s when I knew they would be a great pair and I’d found an excellent puppy raiser. She’s doing a fantastic job.”
The challenge for most puppy raisers is giving the dog back after a year and a half of hard work and special connections, and Perky will be no exception. “It will be tough giving her up, but she’s meant to be somebody’s companion who really needs her, and I’m good with that,” she says.
And if Ziti is one of the 50 percent of Guiding Eye dogs who don’t make it through the training program and becomes available for adoption? “Of course I would take her back. She’s become a wonderful companion but honestly she’s so smart I can’t see her failing.”
For more information about Guiding Eyes and their puppy raising program go to GuidingEyes.org.