From Puppyhood to Graduation
Oct 30, 2017 01:30PM
The Rewarding and Challenging Work of Raising Guide Dogs
By Sabrina Marshall
There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing your hard work pay off. That feeling hasn’t changed for Karen Damianakes and her 18-year-old son, Joey, who raise guide dogs for the blind. From puppyhood to guide dog graduation, the Damianakes, as well as the dogs, put in a lot of work to get across that stage.
Working through the organization Guide Dogs for the Blind, Karen got started raising puppies through her sister-in-law, the leader of their chapter. The organization has groups across the United States and Canada that provide all services free of charge — including any vet visits, special training, and “Puppy Packs” upon starting. All funding comes from volunteers and donations, making their impact on the blind/low-vision community even more amazing. At first, Karen wasn’t sure it was the right fit for her. “For me, giving them up (after training) is the hardest.” But one day she felt ready and started with a yellow lab named Nordic. Even after a career change due to elbow dysplasia, Nordic continues serving Karen as another pet for the family. After raising Nordic, Joey and Karen took on co-raising another puppy, Pacifica, a black lab.
Pacifica brought all kinds of challenges for the Damianakes but in the best way. She was the first dog-in-training to be allowed onto College Park High School’s campus, shadowing Joey in order to expose her to more public settings. After Amanda Bielskis, who also raises guide dog puppies, brought up the idea of letting service dogs train at the school to no avail, the Damianakes got involved, with the two families helping one another plead their case. “We had all the paperwork,“ said Karen. “The two of us worked together with Joey through the district. We went to district meetings, made calls, sent emails (‘lots of emails,’ interjected Joey), LOTS of emails, and paperwork.” Finally, after 10 months of work, Pacifica and Joey were permitted on the campus as a “pilot project.” After the time in high school and with Joey and Karen’s continued training, Pacifica graduated as a breeder this year and was matched with a family. It was hard at first to let her go, but Karen knew how hard Guide Dogs works to match the personalities of the dogs with people. “They take weeks if not months to find the dog the perfect person to match up with. They called me about Pacifica and asked if I felt the family she is with now would be a good match for her,“ said Karen. Taking into account all of Pacifica’s experiences, she was matched with a loving custodial family. The Damianakes still keep in contact with Pacifica’s new family and even got to visit her recently.
With Pacifica paving the way for more guide dogs, Joey followed his mother into raising his own puppy, Heinz, a golden retriever lab cross. Since training at College Park had worked out so well with Pacifica, not only is Heinz attending the current school year with Joey in addition to his other training, but Maddie and Olivia Bielskis are allowed to bring their dog-in-training, Harvard, as well. (Coincidently, Harvard is Heinz’s brother.) “People know not to pet them now,” said Joey. “They know not to distract them or throw food at them. They know the dogs are working.”
It was not a surprise to anyone in the family that Joey wanted his own puppy. “I’ve always been interested in animals; that’s what I want to get into. I’m going to go to school [to major] in animal sciences, zoology, anything that has to do with animals,” said Joey. “So, this was kind of an opportunity to work with them beforehand.” Even if he steps away from raising guide dogs while at school, he definitely sees it as something he’ll return to later, his mother remarked.
Regardless of the obstacles one has to overcome to accommodate raising a guide dog, Karen and Joey both agree it’s one of the most rewarding things they’ve done. At Pacifica’s graduation, they met with a visually impaired girl who would be matched with a guide dog. “She said she couldn’t be more thankful to not be using her cane anymore,” said Joey. “They get to do everything that they couldn’t do before.” Karen added, “And they have a partner with them, so they feel safer.” Joey concluded it best: “They get to make a best friend.”
In the end, the minor challenges Karen and Joey Damianakes face raising a pup are paralleled with an intense amount of pride, admiration, and love. With Joey’s continued interest in animals and Karen’s devotion, it’s clear a lot more successful guide dogs will come out of their care and be put into loving homes.