The following is a republished press release from a community organization or member and NOT written by the Ithaca Voice … to submit community announcements to The Voice, contact us at msmith@ithacavoice.com.

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ITHACA, NY – Emily Gray of Dryden, NY started raising her first seeing eye dog through the Guiding Eyes program when she was just twelve years old. She knew little about the process then, but she says it’s been one of the most rewarding experiences in her life.

“I knew that the next 16 months together would be a total learning curve,” Gray said of her first dog. “Six dogs and nearly a decade later, I am still learning. Second to seeing the pups I’ve raised working and doing what they’re meant to do, my favorite thing about Guiding Eyes is that the program is constantly evolving.”

“Like many raisers, I initially had very little experience handling dogs, but the support I have received from my puppy raising region has been invaluable. They have given me the tools I need to become a confident raiser and a well-spoken young person,” she continued.

Gray is currently raising a dog named Shamus, who is undergoing guide dog training now with the Guiding Eyes organization.

“Becoming a puppy raiser was easily the best decision I could have ever made for my past, my present, and for my future. Puppy raising has opened so many doors for me and I would encourage anyone to get involved,” Gray said.

“There is nothing like seeing the pup you’ve raised working with his graduate. I have met some of the most fantastic people I know through this program–the region managers, area coordinators, trainers, fellow raisers and sitters, and of course, the graduates,” Gray said. “Thank you, Guiding Eyes, for entrusting me with the care of six pups (and counting). It has truly been an honor.”

Raising guide dogs: a gift that gives back

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, living with pets can decrease your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels and feelings of loneliness, and can increase opportunities for exercise and outdoor activities, as well as socialization with other people.

Research supports the fact that stress decreases with a dog.  Cortisol levels decrease by simply petting a dog. The body is better able to combat depression when interacting with dogs. And no surprise, we know that purpose or meaningful experiences coupled with enjoyment helps us reach a state of happiness.

Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a non-profit guide dog school located in Yorktown Heights, New York, offers more than 400 hundred volunteers the health benefits of canine companionship through its Puppy Raising program.

In the Puppy Raising Program, individuals, couples and families from all walks of life along the Eastern seaboard raise specially-bred puppies in a loving home environment for 14-16 months, where they teach the young dogs house manners, and socialize them. The puppies are then returned to Guiding Eyes to be trained as guide dogs.

“It is no surprise how many people repeat puppy raise,” says Linda Damato, Director of Canine Development, “It is habit forming in the very best sense of the word. People not only give a tremendous gift but they also receive so much back in so many unexpected ways by raising a puppy that will one day change a life in a very powerful way!”

“Raising a pup can’t help but improve your state of mind…and it doesn’t get any better than giving someone the gift of independence. How often in life do you get an opportunity like that?”

Dogs provide independence, dignity, companionship

Another dog raiser, Lorraine Trapani of Ridgefield, CT shared her story of how the program helped her:

My husband partially lost his vision in a surgery which diagnosed pancreatic cancer.  When told he had three months to live, he said ‘Just give me something to fight with.’ During the following 18-month battle, I became his ‘guiding eyes.’

After my husband died, I buried myself in work. I was unable to sleep.  My life lost balance and structure.  Over the years that followed, I gained more than 100 pounds.  My husband worked for a great man at IBM who was famous for saying, ‘if nothing changes, nothing changes.’

Nothing changed in my life for many years.  One day, a friend who had attended a graduation at Guiding Eyes for the Blind in New York suggested that I consider raising a puppy for them.  I promised to think about it but did nothing.  A few months later we attended a fundraising event and there was Janet, a volunteer with Guiding Eyes for the Blind, with a puppy.

With the pup in my arms, Janet spoke about the independence, dignity, companionship, and mobility these wonderful dogs provide their partners…..and the courage with which these individuals move forward with their lives.  Her words resonated with me and I saw that raising a puppy was a way to honor my husband’s courage, his strength, and his fight to live.

Although I could no longer help my husband, these ‘pups with a purpose’ are ‘something to fight with’ as others find a way forward from their own tragic loss to live their lives to the fullest. At that point, I had no idea that just by raising them I would find my own way forward.  And then I met my first puppy, Merrick.

I lost the weight I had gained after my husband’s death—all of it—and was able to discontinue medications to control high blood pressure and cholesterol.  I suddenly realized that before Merrick even left me to go into training to become a guide dog for the blind, he had, in a sense, achieved the mission of Guiding Eyes.

With his unconditional love and companionship this special “pup with a purpose” had provided me with greater independence, dignity, mobility and new horizons of opportunity.

Merrick has since gone on to fulfill his true destiny with a blind and partially deaf partner in Boston.  He is never alone and is living a productive, happy life.  As for me, I’m now raising my fourth puppy for Guiding Eyes for the Blind in honor of my husband, and still walking forward–six miles a day.

For more information about opportunities with Guiding Eyes for the Blind in the Finger Lakes Puppy Raising Region, call 1-800-942-0149 or visit their website.

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.