Guiding Eyes on Block Island

Mon, 07/20/2015 - 4:15pm

On Thursday, July 16 there were eight special dogs visiting on the island. This is not to say that all of the other dogs on the island are not special — its just that the visiting dogs that day were all on a mission.

A mission to make a difference in someone's life.

It was a dog reunion, of sorts, of nine puppies and their humans at the home of Charlie and Betsy Pyne, off of Cooneymus Road. Living with Charlie and Betsy is Nexa, a nine-month old yellow lab. The Pyne's have volunteered to be puppy raisers for Nexa, from the Guiding Eyes for the Blind program.

Guiding Eyes is a nonprofit group providing superbly bred and trained guide and service dogs that expand horizons for people to achieve life’s goals. All services are offered free of charge to men and women who are blind or visually impaired and to families with children with autism. The organization’s Headquarters and Training Center is located in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. and its Canine Development Center is in Patterson, N.Y.

Do you know Wrangler?

You may have seen Wrangler on NBC's Today Show — the cute yellow lab that has been on the set of the popular morning news show. Wrangler is from the Guiding Eyes program as well, going through the same puppy raising routine as the others— and is a relative of the pups that came to visit the island.

Pat Webber, regional Manager for Guiding Eyes in Maine, Massachusets and New Hampshire, helped coordinate this field trip to Block Island. Pat travels around to the homes that the puppies are being raised in as well as teaching puppy raising classes and organizing trips like these to help socialize and teach the pups new environments and experiences.

Volunteer puppy raisers take pups at eight weeks old, teach basic obedience and house manners, and socialize their pups to everything the world has to offer. Puppy raisers attend regular training classes throughout the time they have their pups.

Puppy raiser Rachel, from Webster, Mass. traveled to the island with Starling, a 16-month old black lab in the program. Rachel has always loved dogs and got her first Guiding Eye pup in her senior year at Boston College where she trained and socialized the dog in her daily life, from class to class across the campus. She then went on to graduate school at Tufts University where she continued to be a puppy raiser.

Saying Goodbye

The time is getting close to when Rachel will have to say good-bye to Starling, as the pup is ready for the next phase of her training. Rachel also has Iva, a five-month old lab at home from the Guiding Eyes program, and is hoping that she will help the transition of saying goodbye to Starling a little easier.

"I'm happy that Iva will fill the gap of having to say good-bye to Starling — it is hard to say good-bye but I'm excited to see Starling move on to someone who really needs her."

Most guide dogs spend four to six months undergoing formal training with a professional instructor. They learn the skills needed to safely guide a blind person, such as indicating changes of elevation and navigating around obstacles. Heeling autism service dogs provide safety and companionship to children with autism. Survey data shows they make marked improvements in the lives of families challenged by autism – particularly in the areas of traveling, sleeping and eating.

Monthly Graduations

Held monthly, graduation ceremonies are the culmination of training new guide-dog teams. They are an opportunity for puppy raisers to meet their dogs’ new handlers and for all volunteers, donors and supporters to share in the celebration of new independence.

Dogs that are not suitable for guide or autism work are released from the program as puppies, or during various stages of adulthood. Dogs that choose to become pets are available for public adoption. These are known as “released puppies” or “released dogs.” The wait for young adult dogs is four-plus years. Retired guide dogs may also be available for adoption. All released or retired Guiding Eyes dogs are placed in loving homes.

There are numerous volunteer opportunities — if you are at all interested — both hands on and virtual; information on all of them can be found on the Guiding Eyes website at

"It was such a pleasure to host these dogs and their raisers here at our home on the island" said Betsy Pyne.

There are already plans to do it again next summer.

My Life with Nexa
By Betsy Pyne

Charles and I said goodbye to our lovely yellow lab Ginger on August 29, 2013. Anyone who is lucky enough to have had an old lab knows how hard it is to put them down, but the day arriveed. She was 14 and a half. So even after a year we weren’t sure we wanted to go through that again. We had heard of the wonderful, life changing work these dogs do and we decided to look into raising a Guiding Eyes for the Blind puppy.  Before starting classes we went to Yorktown Heights, New York, to see the kennels and a graduation ceremony. After seeing the adult trained dogs matched with their new blind owners we were hooked and decided to join this great organization.

We began Preplacement Puppy classes in Spring of 2014 because you have to attend three classes to see what is expected of you as a new trainer. We got Nexa on a rainy cold night, December 3, 2014 and started training her immediately. Now we go to class with her every other Saturday in Newton, Mass., near our home on the mainland.

This summer we are still very much “in training”. We go everywhere together on the island: the library, the boat, the Post Office, the BIG, the beach, visiting peoples houses, shopping and walking around town. My calm Block Island summer is not quite the same as in past years because I have to go to class every other weekend.

Raising a GEB dog is different from having a pet because she doesn’t really belong to me, although I love her as though she did. If you raise a GEB puppy, it is a responsibility to work her in challenging situations, expect excellent manners at all times, and take care that she is safe and secure at always. This means riding in the car properly, being on the leash almost all the time and also making sure she has time to play and exercise. So there is a price to pay to have the privilege to care for and teach these marvelous, very special dogs.  But it is worth it. 

I will give her back to GEB in January or February of 2016 when she will be about one-and-a-half years old. I expect she will graduate and I will meet her new owner two months later.

Charles and I hosted the outing for all the dogs in our class on July 16, with great anticipation and pleasure. It was fantastic to see all eight dogs walk off the boat. Our outing included a walk up to the Oceanview Pavilion, a walk to sit in front of the statue of Rebecca, waiting patiently at Estas Park, a grand “Puppy Sit” in front of the Southeast Light and lunch for the raisers at our house on Conneymus Road.  All this culminated with a grand run-around in our yard with the eight dogs tearing after one another.

They were all pretty tuckered out after about 30 minutes of keep-away and chase-me games.  It was so successful that we may hold it again next year.

All in all raising a guide dog puppy on Block Island is a great experience. 


 Attendees at the Block Island outing:

1. Charlie & Betsy Pyne of Norfolk, Mass., and Block Island with yellow lab, Nexa.
2. George & Lisa McMains of Medway, Mass., with yellow lab, Emma.
3. Guiding Eyes Regional Manager Pat Webber of Maine with her husband Mike and yellow lab, Andre.
4. Guiding Eyes board member Henry Hill of Conn., and Block Island with granddaughter, and released black lab, Justine.
5. Helen Graves of Hanover, Mass., and family with yellow lab, Narissa.
6. Lisa Bumbalo and son Colin of Hanover, Mass., with yellow lab, Mario.
7. Margaret of New Hampshire with yellow lab, Yankee.
8. Carol Cavenaugh of Cape Cod with yellow lab, Vern.
9. Rachael Bell of Webster, Mass., with black lab, Starling.
10. Sue Thibedeau of Wrentham, Mass., with yellow lab, Maribeth.