Kitsap Navigators help blind ‘see’

POULSBO — In 1989, a small group of Kitsap County residents took aim at a lofty goal: helping the blind see.

They’ve been succeeding to varying degrees ever since and, although the volunteers of the Kitsap Navigators work tirelessly to assist those in need, the group is always on the lookout for new members to take up the torch — or leash as the case may be.

The 15-member group is part of a unique program called Guide Dogs for the Blind, matching canines with those who cannot see and, in essence, giving the latter the gift of sight. The Navigators will be at Central Market from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, showcasing their intelligent canines and seeking to add to their numbers.

“We’re always looking for new puppy raisers,” Navigators member Jim Haskins said. “We will have an info table set up to answer people’s questions about the program. Guide dogs will be there for people to see.”

Guide Dogs for the Blind began in 1942 to assist veterans who suffered visual impairments during World War II. More than six decades later, the program continues to provide highly trained dogs to qualified people throughout the United States and Canada free of charge.

Haskins and his wife Carol Haskins said their friend Maggie Smith got them interested in becoming puppy raisers.

“(Maggie) has raised guide dogs for years. She invited us down to a guide dogs’ graduation ceremony,” Carol Haskins said. “It was very emotional going watching the ceremony. Guide dogs can give a blind person freedom. Once we saw that, we decided we were going to be puppy raisers.”

There was one minor setback: the couple had never owned a dog before. Even so, it was a mixed blessing.

“The good thing is we didn’t have any bad habits,” Carol Haskins said. “Being a dog raiser is different than being a pet owner. We practice so much with what the dog needs to do. The dog has to know its learning his job. Guide dogs can’t ever be distracted. We don’t want a dog running off to play with a kid while he’s with his owner.”

Despite the non-traditional upbringing of such animals, the Haskins agreed that raising a guide dog was something they simply had to do.

“After attending the graduation ceremony and after seeing the tremendous impact it can have on people’s lives, we thought how could we not do it,” Jim Haskins said.

Guide dogs are specifically bred for the program in San Rafael, Calif. and are dispersed at various locations throughout the United States. In Washington, they come to Tacoma where volunteer puppy raisers, including the Kitsap Navigators, pick them up. Guide dogs are typically a mix between labs, golden retrievers and German shepherds. Puppy raisers typically receive the dogs when they’re 8 weeks old and usually keep them until they’re between 12 and 16 months of age.

“We teach them how to behave when they travel on airplanes, ferries and in public,” Carol Haskins said. “They have to be able to be in public places if they’re going to be a service dog. Our job as raisers is to socialize them and teach them commands.”

As the 16th month with their particular puppy raiser nears, the dogs are brought to public place to see how they perform under pressure. It’s a final test before they depart for the next phase of training.

“The dog is taken to a public place where there’s lots of distractions,” Carol Haskins said. “This is done to see if they’re able to maintain their attention to the handler. Some dogs can handle this and some can’t. About half of the dogs that go through this process don’t make it through training.”

If the dog successfully passes this checkpoint, they make the move to Boring, Ore. where they go through a 10-phase program with a professional guide for five to seven months.

If the canines clear this hurdle, they spend a month with a specialist who will ultimately determine whether they will be able to assist a blind handler. Dogs passing this final test graduate from Guide Dogs for the Blind.

Qualifying puppy raisers are invited to attend the graduation ceremony and can formally present the guide dog to its new owner.

It can be an emotional time for puppy raisers when they reunite with the dog they trained.

“Guide dog raisers raise their dogs and then the dog is gone. It’s sort of like being a foster parent,” Jim Haskins said. “Raisers develop a close bond with the dog and love them like they’re their own pet. It’s a bittersweet feeling when they move on.”

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