By Pamela Ramey, USAG RedstoneJune 18, 2010
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Maj. Tracey Smith sounds like any other proud mama when she talks about her "Garland." She is quick to show you a picture or tell you a story about all of Garland's "firsts." You can hear the joy in her voice when she talks about bringing Garland home for the first time; you can hear the strain when she talks about the day Garland left for college.
For a brief moment, you almost forget that Garland is a dog. Of course, she's not just any dog; she is well on her way to being a guide dog for the Guiding Eyes for the Blind organization.
Guiding Eyes for the Blind is a non-profit organization established in 1954 that has provided more than 7,200 blind and visually impaired men and women with guide dogs. In 2008, the organization expanded to include service dogs for autistic children. All dogs used by the organization are bred in-house, and include only Labrador and Golden Retrievers and German shepherds.
Smith, a student at the Command and General Staff School, Redstone Campus, became interested in guide dogs while stationed in Alaska, where she attended church with a teenager who had one. It wasn't until she was transferred to Fort Meade, Md., that she pursued the idea of becoming involved with the organization. She answered an ad in the paper and became a puppy-raiser. After training classes, she became temporary "mom" to eight-week-old Garland.
"Raising a puppy is hard work," Smith said. "They aren't born trained. Like kids, they don't always listen. They have to be taught. These dogs aren't supposed to be pets. They are working dogs. Sometimes you have to be firm."
Smith relied on her military experience to train Garland, but often found the dog was really training the human.
"Training her taught me a lot about myself and how I treat people ... how I treat my Soldiers. It gave me a real understanding of others and how everyone learns differently," Smith said.
Using treats and positive affirmation, Smith taught Garland 20 commands and some sign language in the 17 months they lived together.
Since Garland will accompany a blind person in everyday activities, Smith made the dog part of her everyday life as well, taking Garland to restaurants, grocery shopping, even to work with her.
"Tuesdays and Thursdays were most people's favorite day at work, because that is when Garland came to work, as agreed upon by the installation authorities. People would always ask how she was doing and neglect me, and I would always say I am fine but she is doing well also," Smith said, laughing.
She returned Garland to Guiding Eyes in February so that the dog can receive additional training in a structured, school environment, which they call "college." Garland will graduate in August and begin her life as a seeing-eye dog.
Smith has been invited to the graduation ceremony in New York. She said she plans to attend, but it will be a bittersweet experience.
"I became very attached to her. We shared a bond. It was the best 17 months of my life," Smith said. "I was sad to let her go, but at the same time, I know what I did will help give someone a better life. I will definitely do it again."
For more information on guide dogs like Garland, visit www.guidingeyes.org/.