Lake Norman & Mooresville

Raising puppies as guide dog prospects

Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a nationwide nonprofit program based in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., breeds, raises and trains puppies to be guide dogs for blind and vision-impaired people.

Over the past 18 years, Danny Overcash, 65, and her husband, Walt, 68, have raised 13 puppies for entrance into the Guiding Eyes Guide School.

The Overcashes, who live at The Point, are raising their 14th puppy, a yellow Labrador retriever. Pilgrim is 6 months old. They have also adopted Denton, age 3 years; Denton was the 12th puppy they raised, but he did not become a guide dog.

About one in four dogs raised for Guiding Eyes actually graduates from their program and becomes a successful guide dog. Danny Overcash said the dogs that didn't make it have not failed, but are doing something more appropriate for them.

The Overcashes raise the dogs strictly on a volunteer basis. They usually receive the dogs when they're about 8 weeks old and keep them until they are ready for the Guiding Eyes training program, anywhere from age 12 months to 20 months.

As a puppy raiser, Danny said, her job is to keep the dogs directed and bring out the best in them.

"All dogs have some level of confidence, and a guide dog needs a lot of confidence," she said. "We are not trainers. We are raisers, like foster family."

Four of the 14 puppies the Overcashes have raised have graduated from guide school. One of them, named VanGogh, is with a blind person in Chicago; another, Ralph, is serving a vision-impaired person in Washington, D.C.

The Overcashes' neighbors often see them walking the streets and trails of The Point. The Guiding Eyes program expects them to walk the puppies three times a day for a combined total of three to five miles, regardless of the weather.

All Guiding Eyes volunteers receive support through classes every other week and information on raising puppies provided by the program. Additionally, evaluations take place quarterly in the Raleigh area for Guiding Eyes puppy raisers. The evaluations help Guiding Eyes to decide which dogs are ready for entry into the guide school.

"A guide dog is a dog that has a gift or a talent," said Danny Overcash. "You can make it better, but you can't put it in them."

A dog is ready to go to guide school, she said, if it can settle down quickly. She elaborates by describing that most of what guide dogs do is waiting to be needed, and getting the dogs beyond distractions - especially other dogs - plays a big part in their readiness for the Guiding Eyes school.

One purpose of Guiding Eyes is to open up the eyes of people and the public about what guide dogs do.

Overcash said she's privileged to take her puppies to places where most dogs cannot go. Once they are old enough, each puppy receives a jacket that gains it entry into grocery stores, malls, banks, libraries, restaurants and other public places. Overcash said she generally receives a good reception from the public when she goes out.

Guiding Eyes changes the lives of those who are vision-impaired by giving them independence they would not have otherwise, she said. But the puppies also change the lives of the people who raise them in preparation to be guides.

"Don't ask about the dogs unless you've got at least 30 minutes," said Overcash.