The Seeing Eye is a remarkable philanthropic organization that enhances the independence of blind people through the use of guide dogs. The Seeing Eye breeds their own puppies and when they reach 8 weeks old, they leave to spend a year learning basic obedience with a volunteer. Beth Pfizenmayer, a local Seeing Eye puppy raiser and wonderful client, has brought all 6 of her puppies to see Dr. Shreiber. “Our job is to expose them to as much as we can: lighting, sounds, clouds, anything. This makes the puppies more prepared to focus when they return to train for 4 months with a sighted instructor,” Beth explained.
The puppy is then matched with a blind candidate and begins a 2-3 week training period until the pair is ready to start their own adventure. “The matching program is phenomenal, in the way they can match the right pace and temperament. The Seeing Eye is just an amazing program,” said Beth.
Hugger, Beth’s third Seeing Eye puppy, became a guide dog for Britt Raubenheimer, an oceanographer and senior scientist for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Britt grew up in New Jersey on a small farm with horses, chickens, cats and dogs and she loved physics, math and the outdoors. Britt was always an animal lover but did not have a pet of her own due to the travel constraints of her job. In 2003, Britt suddenly lost her vision due to optic nerve atrophy. She anxiously contacted The Seeing Eye and was matched with her first guide dog, Whit, who helped her with the transition of losing her sight. “I was nervous. It happened pretty fast. The first time we went out for a walk it felt like I was zooming around through the crowds. It was a crazy feeling, similar to the adrenaline you feel when you play a sport or do something adventurous,” Britt recounted.
Hugger met Britt on June 30, 2016 and immediately began training. It was a tough training period, as Britt had developed a specific communication system with Whit that she had to unlearn and redevelop with Hugger. “The first time we went off the pavement into the dirt Hugger stopped immediately. She thought she was supposed to keep me on the sidewalk. It was hard to create a new language in a short period of time,” Britt explained.
Britt’s career and work is varied — she travels and goes to the beach, attends conferences, completes field work and has a slew of personal hobbies including skiing, hiking, and rock climbing. Last year, Hugger and Britt racked up a whopping 100,000 miles of domestic airline travel. When asked how Hugger helps with work, Britt said “I could change the way I do my work by sending others to the field without me, or not traveling to as many conferences or meetings. But one of the things I love about my career is the variety. And going to the beach! Hugger makes both possible.” Britt studies anything and everything that happens along the coast including hurricanes, erosion, waves, rip currents, floods, extreme events and sediment transport. Together, they spend on average 3-4 months a year working on deploying instruments and making measurements. Most of the work is done on the beach in summer and fall since they primarily use their hands, and recent work has been in Massachusetts, North Carolina, and on the West Coast. The team places instruments on metal pipes and needs to use screwdrivers and wrenches which can be difficult to do below 50 degrees.
Britt even scuba dives. “It’s typically in shallow water where the waves are stirring up sediment. A lot of time you can’t see anyway. Most of the undergrads get trained in scuba and ask me how I do it. I tell them to close their eyes. You can do so much by feel, you know the shape of the instruments and can work around it,” Britt explained.
Hugger enables Britt to get back and forth and provides a lot of freedom. There were days when their engineers and field techs went to the beach to work while she had a meeting. “Sometimes we would walk 2-3 miles to get to work. Hugger would learn places on the route and she would take me right there after the meeting. This gave me a lot of flexibility and I didn’t have to rely on someone else,” said Britt. Hugger makes it easy to be at crowded restaurants and travel through the airport. “She uses her head to to point out an obstacle ahead. She keeps me going straight to where I need to be. It’s liberating to be able to get where I want when I want. She’s also really good at finding the car.”
According to The Seeing Eye, the greatest difficulty guide dog users encounter is public interference. There are times when people approach Hugger when she’s in harness, but Britt says people are better informed each year and most will ask before doing anything. Britt’s largest issue occurs when she travels internationally. “It’s harder to communicate my issues to people. Sometimes it’s a struggle, but once they understand, they are completely accepting and respect our space,” Britt explained.
Britt is amazed by Hugger and her ability to flip back between work and play mode. When Hugger is in harness she is completely focused and direct, but she also enjoys being a normal spunky dog at home. “When she’s not in harness she’s a crazy happy, playful puppy. She loves to be off leash, play fetch, jump into snow drifts, hike and run. Even though they grow up to be obedient, they are still puppies at heart,” Britt said.
Losing her sight has been a major challenge for Britt, but her active work and personal life has kept her very busy and happy. “One plus from all this, besides Hugger, is my ability to be on boats for long periods of time. I used to get sea sick, but once I lost my vision I lost my sea sickness too,” Britt explained.
You can keep up with Britt and Hugger’s adventures on her blog, “An Oceanographer’s Guide: Adventures of a Blind Oceanographer and her Seeing Eye Dog” at web.whoi.edu/raubenheimer.