By Roz Hamlett, Portfolio Editor
Since the early days of romp ‘n roll, certain dawgs have stood above others. Their looks, their attitudes and their actions transcend the lives of mere pets. These smooth operators are rock stars with fur. And wherever these canine celebrities appeared during a recent training at Newark Liberty International Airport, the cameras and buzz followed. Seeing Eye dogs are indisputably cool.
For the past seven years, the Port Authority’s Felecia Davidson, supervisor of Landside Operations & Customer Service at the airport, has joined forces with Janet Keeler, puppy club leader with the Morristown, N.J.-based nonprofit The Seeing Eye to orchestrate one of the most entertaining shows in town, as some 50 pups learn the ropes before becoming full-fledged Seeing Eye dogs for the visually-impaired.
“The day we spend at the airport is so important because some of the puppies have to board airplanes and fly home with their new owners who live out of town,” said Keeler, “There’s a big difference between puppies who get to go to the airport and those who don’t.”
The mood was all business this past Saturday as the puppies entered Terminal C in more (or less) single file. Any exuberance or playfulness was discouraged with a gentle tug on the leash and a firm voice. The real-life drill had begun. The pups moved through the terminal like a miniature band of rockers in little green jackets. People stopped, stared and reached for cell phone cameras to snap a quick photo like paparazzi encountering the King of Romp ‘n Roll and his entourage for the first time.
A few of them wobbled like models in tall heels as they practiced walking the slippery stairs between terminal levels. They learned the patience required to get through a TSA security checkpoint, the self-control of waiting at the gate to board the airplane. They learned to feign disinterest as a toy poodle crossed their path in a cage. They were paraded through a smorgasbord of sights, sounds and smells in the Terminal C food court. And if any puppy was drooling for a slice of pizza, they had the good sense not to show it. They were on their way to becoming professionals.
Once post-security, they boarded the United Fantasy Flight to Cancun, Mexico, settling beneath seats and advised by retired United Airlines pilot Roger Probert to keep their tails out of the aisles. As he reviewed a list of do’s and don’ts for the proper behavior of service dogs on a flight, most of the older dogs appeared to listen attentively to the rules. A few of the younger ones just yawned and fell asleep.
Their journey to become Seeing Eye dogs begins at the nonprofit’s facilities, where they live until the age of seven or eight weeks. They next go to volunteer puppy raisers who live within driving distance of The Seeing Eye. Puppy raisers are foster families who nurture and care for their charges until they are about 13- to 16-months old.
The dogs learn basic manners and commands, and become socialized to a variety of social situations and experiences. The final step of their training ends with a four-month stint with an instructor before being matched with an owner. Says Keeler, “You have to make the right match.”
Jonathan Goodman was matched with his first seeing eye dog three days after graduating from high school. Goodman, 35, lost his sight when he was 14 months old because of complications arising from surgery to remove a brain tumor.
“I grew up totally blind,” said Goodman, who lives in Somerdale, N.J. with his girlfriend, two dogs and two cats. His current dog, Teddy, goes everywhere with Goodman. “I have flown with him. Traveling through the airport can be a bit stressful, especially during the security check because they have to check the dog and the harness to make sure we are safe to fly.”
Goodman says that Teddy gives him a sense of dignity when he travels. As for the puppy raisers, he says, “It takes a truly special person to get a cute puppy, raise them until they are almost perfect house dogs and then selflessly give them up to enhance the life of someone they may never know.”