‘Puppy express’ brings future guide dog to area trainer | Local News
By CATHY DYSON THE FREE SPEAR STAR
Jenny McMichael eagerly approached the plane that had just landed and waited for the door to open so she could meet her new prince.
“Hi, you look so handsome,” she said, as she kissed the man named Archer. He rested his head on her shoulder for a few seconds, then lifted his face and covered hers with wet kisses.
McMichael nuzzled his muzzle. “You smell like a puppy,” she said happily.
Those watching were thrilled with how the new couple clicked.
“It’s love at first sight,” said Kaitlyn Cawley, a member of a film crew at the time.
McMichael, an autism specialist from Spotsylvania County Schools, flew to Stafford Regional Airport on Tuesday to pick up Archer, an 8-week-old black Labrador retriever who is part of the Guiding Eyes for the Blind program. Over the next 14 to 16 months, McMichael will raise Archer, a role she has played seven times previously with the organization that provides trained guide dogs for the blind and visually impaired.
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But this week was the first time the dog had come by plane. Guiding Eyes this year began a new partnership with Pilots to the Rescue, a New York-based volunteer group that typically transports at-risk animals to improve their chances of being adopted, Michael Schneider said.
He flew the plane that brought Archer to Stafford and his nameplate and calling card state he is “Top Dog”, not Top Gun.
“It’s a good thing to be able to have a puppy express,” Schneider said.
This saves volunteers and puppies from having to drive from Guiding Eyes headquarters, approximately 45 miles north of New York, to points in the 14 states covered by the organization, from Maine to North Carolina and Australia. west to Colorado.
Along that stretch, people like McMichael of Spotsylvania County enable the placement of about 170 guide dogs each year, part of more than 8,000 paired teams since the organization began in 1954, according to his site. Web, guidanceeyes.org.
“We literally couldn’t do what we do without our puppy raisers,” said Kerry Lemerise, the group’s puppy program manager. “They are absolutely essential to what we do.”
She was in Richmond eight years ago when McMichael had her first puppy and remembered the excitement. Managers at McMichael and Guiding Eyes were eager to find out how the puppies could help children with special needs in McMichael’s classrooms.
“It’s a great opportunity for the dogs to go to work and start impacting people even before they get into guiding work, which is great,” Lemerise said.
In his 12th year teaching people with autism, McMichael, 35, works as an autism specialist and oversees eight classes at Gateway Academy, located in the former John J. Wright School.
When she first considered being a puppy raiser, she asked her supervisors at school for permission to bring her ward with her every day. She showed them data on how the interaction could help both children and dogs.
“Kids love dogs. Many of them buy time to spend with the dog or the dog is a strategy if they are upset or frustrated,” McMichael said. “It’s super useful in my class.”
To anyone who asks McMichael about her role with Guiding Eyes, she explains that her job as a puppy raiser is to teach basic obedience and expose the dog to as many social situations as possible. This includes teaching dogs to be house trained and to be good guests, to other people’s homes or in public, to walk on a leash and to respond to basic commands, Lemerise said.
Puppy raisers also ensure that dogs do not eat food that has fallen on the floor. A blind person can accidentally drop a pill and “you don’t want the dog to think it’s a treat and eat it,” McMichael said. “They can only eat from our hands or their bowl,” she said.
McMichael admits she’s ‘a little picky about teaching styles’ and researched service dog organizations before attending regional courses in Richmond run by Guiding Eyes.
“I’m a behavior analyst and a lot of the principles (used with dogs and children) are similar, like the same science of behavior change and reinforcement,” she said. “I felt good with Guiding Eyes, like it was where I was supposed to be.”
The majority of dogs used by Guiding Eyes are Labs — another 8% are German Shepherds — but not all dogs will have what it takes to serve the blind and visually impaired, Lemerise said.
Two of McMichael’s dogs were released due to health issues. She adopted one, a yellow lab named Halsey who has a mild heart condition that probably would never have been detected if Guiding Eyes hadn’t put the dogs through extensive medical examinations.
Halsey is 4 years old and a great “big sister” to the pups in McMichael’s household. Two of the dogs she bred, Snickers and Yoshi, had great personalities, the organization used them as breeders. Another, Clementine, was paired with a young child to be used as a companion dog.
“All of my dogs have been great with the kids because they’re in school all day. They have to be,” McMichael said.
Her first pup, Squire, retired last year after seven years of service. McMichael receives updates on all the dogs she raises and she has stayed in touch with Squire’s owner, a Chicago man named Matt.
He asked if she wanted Squire back. She already had Halsey and couldn’t take him, but her mother did, and the dogs and owners see each other regularly.
After McMichael trains her puppies and prepares them for “college” – their specialized training as guide dogs – she must work through the heartbreak of separation.
“Oh, that’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. This is the worst,” she said. “The first time I had to return a dog, I thought to myself, I can never do that again.”
Then she went to the graduation ceremony, when Squire finished his training and was ready to start his life with Matt. She saw their bond and the ways Squire could help her.
“It made me so happy,” she said. “I was like, this is what you’re supposed to do.”
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425