A black Labrador named Carmen who was raised by Oakton resident Deborah and Paul Wydra for almost two years will soon begin guide dog training at Guiding Eyes for the Blind.
Of the six dogs the family raised through the program, Carmen was the best, says Deborah Wydra.
“She’s an especially great pup and really ‘gets’ all the training,” Wydra said. “She’s very smart, very fast and we really hope she can do it.”
The couple began working with Guiding Eyes in 2015. Deborah Wydra raised puppies as guide dogs when she was a high school student in California. When her kids got old enough to understand the training and the process of letting go of the dogs, “we decided it was going to be a good family activity,” she said.
Founded in 1954 by Donald Kauth, the non-profit organization Guiding Eyes for the Blind places more than 150 guide dogs each year and offers these services free of charge to people with vision loss.
Financed almost exclusively by donations, the organization breeds more than 500 puppies every year. The vast majority — 92 percent — are Labrador Retrievers and the rest are German Shepherds.
The Wydras have housed both black and yellow Labs and eventually hope to raise a German Shepherd through the program.
“We feel ready,” said Deborah Wydra. “It’s a bit more difficult to work with them. My husband and I think we could be up to the challenge.”
To join Guiding Eyes, volunteers must first complete an application, complete a month-long series of weekend courses, and then practice with a dog for a weekend. There are no living quarters requirements for participants, Wydra said.
If accepted into the program, participants must attend classes and trips with their dogs. The volunteers typically keep their dogs for a year when they are usually 16 months old, but the pandemic prompted longer stays. Carmen, for example, has just turned 2 years old.
Guiding Eyes has not sent guide dogs out for training for much of the pandemic, but has now returned to a robust breeding program, Wydra said.
Guiding Eyes has a geneticist helping with the breeding process, Wydra said. When puppies don’t make the cut to guide dogs, the group adopts them or has other dog schools pick them up, she said.
Participating families have the choice of which dog breeds they would like to accept. Those responsible for the program also take into account the personalities and working habits of the families. Because the Wydras work and can’t stay home with puppies, they have sheltered older dogs.
“We have someone who ‘starts’ the dogs until they’re about 6 months old,” she said. Carmen was just 12 weeks old when the couple received her in March 2020.
Deborah Wydra teaches English at Chantilly High School and occasionally brought Carmen to her classes. Wydra was able to do this because Virginia considers dogs in training to be service dogs by the time they are 6 months old. Chantilly High leaders also supported the visits, she said.
Wydra often took Carmen jogging and said the dog made an excellent running buddy.
To help their dogs succeed, the Wydras give them plenty of socialization with people of all ages, obedience training, and teaching them how to live in a home with people.
Guiding Eyes leaders learned that it is difficult to socialize kennel-reared puppies with humans. Therefore, placing them in families may help them make the transition to seeing guide dogs, Wydra said. The organization also regularly updates its training guidelines in hopes of bolstering the dogs’ success, she said.
Before COVID, the Wydras could give up puppies they raised at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, then stay and watch their final test before guide dog training. The pandemic ended that practice, but the couple were scheduled to watch Carmen’s test on Jan. 11 via a private web link.
“I’ll probably have my students with me because they all know them,” she said in the run-up to the event.
The couple, who have witnessed the test several times, know what skills Guiding Eyes expects from their dogs, and they help their dogs practice them, Wydra said.
A test item many dogs would fail at: being left alone in a room with a sandwich on the table and not eating the tempting treat.
Guiding Eyes will update the Wydras on Carmen’s findings and her options for moving forward. When she goes into guide dog training, the couple is kept up to date. People who own dogs raised by the Wydras sometimes keep in touch.
Deborah Wydra enjoys volunteering and said Guiding Eyes allows her to give back to the community.
“Dogs really are a wonderful bridge between people with disabilities and the rest of society,” Wydra said. “I think that’s the most beautiful thing, the collaborative partnership. . . Being different in society can be very isolating. Humans are just attracted to dogs and that makes for such a beautiful opener.”
Paul Wydra commended the Guiding Eyes leaders and volunteers for the program. Through the initiative, the family learned a lot about dogs and the help they can provide for the visually impaired, he said.
“I didn’t want to invest that much time and was concerned that I would become too attached to the puppies,” he said of participating in the program. “But I’m so happy with six puppies that my wife persuaded the family to do it.”
Visit www.guidingeyes.org for more information.