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FairfaxRaising dogs to help blind is family affair

Raising dogs to help blind is family affair

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Having been raised by Deborah and Paul Wydra of Oakton for nearly two years, a black Labrador named Carmen soon will begin guide-dog training at Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

Of the six dogs the family has raised through the program, Carmen has been the best, Deborah Wydra said.

“She’s a particularly excellent puppy and really ‘gets’ all the training,” Wydra said. “She’s very smart, very quick and we’re really hoping she makes it.”

The couple began working with Guiding Eyes in 2015. Deborah Wydra had raised puppies to be guide dogs when she was a high-school student in California. When her children became old enough to understand the training and process of letting the dogs go, “we decided it would be a good activity for the family,” she said.


Founded in 1954 by Donald Kauth, non-profit Guiding Eyes for the Blind places more than 150 guide dogs each year, and provides those services free of charge for people with vision loss.

Financed almost entirely through donations, the organization breeds more than 500 puppies each year. The vast preponderance – 92 percent – are Labrador retrievers and the remainder are German shepherds.

The Wydras have hosted both black and yellow Labs and eventually hope to raise a German shepherd through the program.

“We feel like we’re ready,” Deborah Wydra said. “They are a little bit harder to work with. My husband and I are thinking we might be up to the challenge.”

To take part in Guiding Eyes, volunteers first must fill out an application, undertake a month-long series of weekend classes and then practice with a dog for a weekend. There are no requirements as to participants’ living spaces, Wydra said.

If accepted into the program, participants must take classes and on outings with their dogs. The volunteers typically keep their dogs for a year, when they typically are 16 months old, but the pandemic resulted in longer stays. Carmen, for example, just turned 2.

Guiding Eyes did not send out any guide dogs for training during much of the pandemic, but now has returned to a robust breeding program, Wydra said.

Guiding Eyes has a staff geneticist to help with the breeding process, Wydra said. If puppies do not make the cut to be guide dogs, the group adopts them out or lets them be picked up by other dog schools, she said.

Participating families have a choice of which dog breeds they wish to accept. Program officials also take into account the families’ personalities and work habits. Because the Wydras work and cannot stay home with puppies, they have hosted older dogs.

“We have somebody else ‘start’ the dogs until they’re about 6 months old,” she said. Carmen was only 12 weeks old when the couple received her in March 2020.

Deborah Wydra teaches English at Chantilly High School and occasionally brought Carmen to her classes. Wydra was able to do so because Virginia considers dogs in training to be service dogs when they reach 6 months of age. Chantilly High’s leaders also were supportive of the visits, she said.

Wydra frequently took Carmen jogging with her and said the dog would make an excellent running buddy.

To help their dogs succeed, the Wydras give them plenty of socialization with people of all ages, do obedience training and teach them how to live in a home with people.

Guiding Eyes leaders learned that kennel-raised puppies have a hard time connecting with humans, so placing them with families helps them potentially make the transition to becoming guide dogs, Wydra said. The organization also updates its training guidelines regularly in hopes of bolstering the dogs’ success, she said.

Before COVID, the Wydras could drop off puppies they had raised at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, then stick around and watch their final test before guide-dog training. The pandemic ended that practice, but the couple were set to watch Carmen’s test via private Web link on Jan. 11.

“I’ll probably have my students watch with me, because they all know her,” she said in the run-up to the event.

Having witnessed the test several times before, the couple know what skills Guiding Eyes expects the dogs to master and they help their dogs practice them, Wydra said.

One test element many dogs would fail: being left alone in a room with a sandwich on a table and not eating the tempting treat.

Guiding Eyes will inform the Wydras of Carmen’s results and her options for moving forward. If she goes into guide-dog training, the couple will receive constant updates. People who own dogs raised by the Wydras sometimes stay in touch.

Deborah Wydra enjoys volunteer work and said Guiding Eyes lets her give back to the community.

“Dogs really are a wonderful bridge between people who are differently abled and the rest of the community,” Wydra said. “I think that’s the most beautiful thing, the working partnership . . . It can be very isolating to be different in society. People just naturally gravitate to dogs, and it creates such a nice opener.”

Paul Wydra praised the leaders of Guiding Eyes and volunteers for the program. Through the initiative, the family has learned much about dogs and the help they can provide to the visually impaired, he said.

“I was reluctant to invest so much time and was worried I’d get too attached to the puppies,” he said of participating in the program. “But six puppies in, I’m so happy that my wife talked the family into doing this.”

For more information, visit www.guidingeyes.org.

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