Gilbert resident Sandy Thomas didn’t know what to expect when husband Robert came home with his first guide dog, a yellow Labrador retriever named Eve, more than 10 years ago.
Until then, she had been his guide since he went blind in the early ’90s. She had no experience around guide dogs and wondered how an animal could really help her husband get around.
But that changed the first time she saw Eve step in front of Robert to keep him from walking in front of a moving car.
“I’m still so amazed to see their decision-making capabilities,” she said of the guide dogs she has worked with.
Since then, Robert and Sandy Thomas have raised 12 future guide dogs for California-based Guide Dogs for the Blind, one of the largest guide dog breeding and training organizations in the nation.
The school operates much like the now-closed Eye Dog Foundation, which for decades operated a guide-dog training facility in Phoenix. That facility closed last month.
So far, only one Eye Dog Foundation client has applied for a dog through Guide Dogs for the Blind.
But school officials point out that could increase as current guide dogs grow older and are retired.
The main difference between the schools was that the Eye Dog Foundation trained German shepherds while Guide Dogs for the Blind trains Labrador and golden retrievers almost exclusively.
“Labradors are the most successful breed and are used worldwide,” said Joanne Ritter, a Guide Dogs for the Blind spokeswoman. “We have some shepherds, but mostly Labs.”
The Thomas family is one of nearly 40 in the Valley who make up the Phoenix Guide Dog Raisers group, which raises and trains Labrador and golden retriever puppies for the program.
Each family takes a puppy at 8 to 10 weeks old and trains it while looking for potential problems that could make them unsuitable for careers as guide dogs.
They must be loyal and intelligent — enough of both to determine when to obey their masters and when to disobey if their masters’ safety is threatened.
“There’s a lot that goes into it,” Ritter said. “You’re asking a dog to be entrusted with someone’s safety and that’s a pretty big thing.”
The Thomas family is currently raising 4-month-old Kenya, an energetic yellow Lab still learning the basics of puppyhood manners.
That means she hears “Kenya, that’s enough” quite often, Sandy Thomas said.
Robert Thomas’ current guide dog, 10-year-old Lane, is also a yellow Lab that has traveled with and guided his master all over the country.
“I’ve traveled more with him than I had when I was fully sighted,” Robert said.
Lane has appeared in two weddings and has even roamed the streets of New York City.
“He’s been everywhere; he’s even done Manhattan,” Robert said.