Sleuths and Guide Dogs: The Many “Eyes” of Joani Ascher, Part I

Author and Seeing Eye puppy raiser, Joani Ascher

“Eyes” seem to be a theme when it comes to Joani Ascher, author of the Wally Morris Mystery series from Avalon Books. For one, she spends many a day crafting intrigue for her character, Wally (who, don’t let the name fool you, is a woman), to become entangled with. Wally’s not a private eye exactly, but she’s definitely a crime-solving sleuth of sorts. For another, Ms. Ascher raises Seeing Eye puppies.

I asked her if she’d have time to spare from her writing and puppy duties to answer a few questions. To my delight she agreed!

Part I of our two-part interview focuses on her involvement raising guide dogs.

Courtney Mroch: How did you get started being a Seeing Eye puppy raiser?

Joani Ascher: My involvement with Seeing Eye® goes back a few years to when I was in the sixth grade and read Follow My Leader by James B. Garfield. In it a fourteen-year-old boy loses his eyesight when a firecracker explodes in his hand. He eventually receives a Seeing Eye® dog guide from the school in Morristown. I wrote to The Seeing Eye® and asked them how I could become a trainer. They wrote back saying that puppy raisers had to reside in New Jersey (they have since expanded their territory) and since I lived in Brooklyn, I could not participate.

Fast forward to when my daughter was the same age and I gave her a copy of that book. She decided she wanted to raise a puppy and we went to a meeting of our local Essex County club, Eyes of Hope. After learning all the details, she signed up to raise a puppy. My son signed up to raise the next. When they went to college my husband and I took over. We are now raising puppy number ten.

CM: Do you raise one pup at a time or do you take on multiple pups at once?

JA: When our children were both home we did overlap puppies. I can’t manage that anymore, especially since two of the puppies we raised had career changes and became ours permanently. Misty became a therapy dog, but Bambi was content to just sit around looking cute.

CM: Most of us who raise pups to be part of our families have certain things we must keep in mind when raising them. How is it different for you with raising a Seeing Eye pup? What sort of things do you have to keep in mind? Are there certain behaviors you must learn to teach?

JA: The primary purpose of raising the puppies with 4-H families is to socialize the dogs. They will eventually live with someone, they will move around in cities, take public transportation, go into restaurants, stores, libraries, and sometimes hotels. Most pets don’t get those opportunities or the responsibility that goes along with them. The puppies must behave in a civilized manner in all those places; not steal food, not bark, not go onto seats or furniture, not chase squirrels or birds, not chew things that don’t belong to them, and not sprawl out on their backs waiting for a belly rub. There’s a long list of things to teach a puppy and it takes patience and devotion. Incidentally, Seeing Eye® uses different terms for common commands. We say “rest” instead of stay, for example, and we don’t ask the puppies to heel. They are supposed to lead, so we say “forward” when we want to move.

Once the puppies go back to The Seeing Eye®, at about eighteen months, they receive their formal training for five months. They learn, among other things, to stop at curbs, to avoid low branches, and to watch for cars. After about four months of the training the puppy raiser is invited to watch, from afar, her puppy working with the trainer. It is an amazing and proud moment. It is also the last time the puppy raiser will see the puppy.

CM: How are the pups doing that you raised? Do you keep up with where they are and how they’re getting along?

JA: Our record of success with our puppies is: four working (out of nine, since number ten is still here). One went to a college student, two to members of the clergy, and the latest just started law school with her new mommy. We couldn’t be more proud. Two who didn’t make it live here, as I mentioned, and three were put up for adoption, which is closed. Seeing Eye® is very choosy when placing its puppies, even the ones who don’t pass their training, whether they are sent to a canine service or to a family. It makes it all somewhat easier to let them go, knowing they have a happy life ahead of them, wherever they go.

The interview will be continued in Part II, which focuses on Ms. Ascher’s personal pets and the fictional ones in her writing.

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