Guide Dog Graduation: Northern Westchester-Based Nonprofit Provides Pups To Homes Across US

A new class of guide dogs that graduated from a New York nonprofit organization – including one dog going to serve the organization’s CEO – demonstrates the group’s 60-year commitment to changing the lives of people with vision loss or blindness.

Ten (left) was one of a handful of guide dogs who graduated from Guiding Eyes' training program on Friday, April 12. 

Ten (left) was one of a handful of guide dogs who graduated from Guiding Eyes' training program on Friday, April 12. 

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Guiding Eyes for the Blind

On Friday, April 12, Guiding Eyes for the Blind held one of its biannual guide dog graduations, celebrating the hard work of volunteers and pups alike and officially transferring the furry friends’ care to their new owners.

However, this graduation was a little different from others — one of the graduates was a yellow lab named “Ten,” who had trained for months to be placed with Thomas Panek, the foundation’s President and CEO.

“We were looking slash hoping for him to be a good dog for Thomas,” said the foundation’s Guide Dog Mobility Instructor Jolene Hollister.

Hollister, who has been with Guiding Eyes for the Blind for 24 years, helped train Ten, who was named after Eli Manning’s jersey number (Manning serves on the organization’s board of directors).

Though Hollister said the pressure was “absolutely” on when it came to ensuring Ten would be ready for Panek, Ten was an incredible pup from the jump.

“He’s got a ‘closet personality, I like to say,” Hollister said. “When he’s in harness, and we were working, [he was] all business. He’s very serious…and then, you take the harness off, and he turns into a goofy 2-year-old Labrador, who loves to play fetch.”

Typically, future guide dogs stay with puppy raisers until they reach 1-and-a-half years of age, when they begin their time at Guiding Eyes for the Blind’s Yorktown Height campus to receive training.

The pups are then paired with volunteers and trainers like Hollister and undergo about five or six months of training. During that time, they are matched to a client based on a myriad of factors, including whether the client lives in a more rural or metropolitan area, how fast they prefer to walk, and more, and are adopted out around the age of 2.

Because Ten was going on to work for the very busy and active Panek — the CEO is an avid marathon runner and, due to the nature of his job, is often jetsetting, meeting clients and donors at busy restaurants, and more — he needed to be a versatile guide, knowing how to not get distracted by food at eateries or how to guide Panek through TSA, for example.

Hollister said that not only was it helpful to have direct access to Panek at the Yorktown campus (something that is not common, as clients can come from across the country), but that Ten adapted and quickly began to thrive in his position.

During a recent trip with Panek to Atlanta, Hollister said, he proved his chops.

“I felt the pressure that day…That was a lot of stuff I can’t practice,” she told Daily Voice. “I have not had this dog in an airport. I’ve not had him on an airplane.”

“But every step of the way, Ten was like, ‘I don’t know what you’re so nervous for’…Every step of the way, he was like, ‘I’m cool.’”

As a non-profit, Guiding Eyes for the Blind has graduated thousands of dogs, raised by volunteers. Though it can cost up to $50,000 annually to train and care for a guide dog throughout its eight- to 10-year working life, the organization provides its dogs to people who are blind or have vision loss free of charge.

Ten, like every other guide dog that Guiding Eyes for the Blind trains, will fill a very important role for his owner for years to come. And that, Hollister said, is the best part of her job.

One graduate, for example, had never left her neighborhood in Queens, New York before getting her guide dog, but later sent Hollister an update that she traveled to Costa Rica with her furry friend.

“What I do and why I do it has never changed, and it never will,” Hollister said.

“Seeing the dog and their graduate go conquer the world and be more independent and do things that they never necessarily thought they could…that’s what makes me keep going.”

For more information about Guiding Eyes for the Blind, click here. 

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