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Maxie the Labrador is ready for her test

Maxie, Eileen Bengtson, guiding eyes for the blind

Eileen Bengtson, left, and Maxie share a moment with Pastor Becca Middeka-Conlin of the Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Georgetown, where Maxie is a frequent Sunday visitor. —Patricia Gay photo

For the past year, Eileen Bengtson has had a great time raising Maxie, a female black Labrador retriever, at her Weston home. But now it’s time for Maxie to leave and face a test that could change the dog’s life forever.

Maxie is part of the Guiding Eyes for the Blind (GEB) program, a nonprofit organization that provides guide dogs to those who are visually impaired. As a puppy-raising volunteer, Ms. Bengtson has been rearing Maxie following the program’s strict guidelines.

At 18 months old, Maxie is now mature enough to see if she is ready for the next step. She will be tested on Tuesday, Jan. 29, at the Guiding Eyes facility in Yorktown, N.Y. The test is pass or fail. Dogs that pass are trained to become guide dogs. Dogs that fail may find other roles, such as service dogs with law enforcement, or they may be adopted out to families as pets.

Because a guide dog becomes a set of eyes for someone without vision, the program is highly selective. There are benchmarks and standards to be met before a dog is accepted in the final training program, and many dogs won’t make it. GEB is looking for dogs with confidence and ability to seek and learn. “Ultimately, whichever way Maxie goes is up to her,” Ms. Bengtson said.

Puppy-raising

A retired teacher who spent 34 years in the Weston school system, Ms. Bengtson and her husband, Paul, spent several years rescuing greyhounds. Ms. Bengtson then got involved in the GEB program while looking for a companion for her pet golden retriever, and in 2011 she became a puppy-raiser for Maxie.

Raisers spend hours teaching and socializing dogs. “We teach basic commands, encourage positive social behavior, and expose the pup to a variety of environments,” Ms. Bengtson said.

Throughout the training, Ms. Bengtson learned how to read Maxie’s reactions. “This helped me guide Maxie as she came across new situations,” she said.

To socialize Maxie, Ms. Bengtson took the jovial Labrador to shopping centers and restaurants, and on train and car trips.

Maxie, Eileen Bengtson, Guiding Eyes for the Blind

Maxie sniffs out a good hymn at church. —Eileen Bengtson photo

Maxie also accompanied the Bengtsons on Sundays to the Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Georgetown, where she would lie on a special mat next to them during the service. “The people in the congregation embraced Maxie and were very welcoming. She especially loves listening to music at church,” Ms. Bengtson said.

Ms. Bengtson recalled one service when the church’s pastor, Becca Middeka-Conlin, asked the congregation if anyone needed “prayers” and Maxie made a noise. “The pastor said, let’s pray for Maxie, too,” Ms. Bengtson said.

Last Sunday, church members gave Maxie a special sendoff and farewell at the service, wishing her well on her upcoming test.

While raising Maxie in a caring home has benefited the dog, Ms. Bengtson has gotten a lot out of the process as well. “I became involved with a network of fellow puppy raisers who worked together to help their pups achieve their potential. We not only interacted with wonderful pups, we interacted as a group and we had a lot in common,” she said.

Maxie has turned out to be a sweet dog that gets along well with people as well as Ms. Bengtson’s golden retriever and cats.

Maxie’s future could be as a guide for a blind person or autistic child. But should Maxie not pass the test, or not be suitable for search-and-discovery police work, Ms. Bengtson may be able to adopt her as a pet, which she said she would do with pleasure.

A strong proponent of GEB, Ms. Bengtson encourages dog lovers who have time on their hands to consider volunteering for the program. “They are always looking for people who are willing to share their lives with these special dogs,” Ms. Bengtson said.

While Ms. Bengtson is not aware of any other families in Weston who are currently volunteering with GEB, the program has had one other success in Weston.

Lumina, a golden retriever, was raised by Ginger Jespersen on Heritage Lane for GEB. Lumina’s characteristics and behavior were so superior that she served as a brood (breeding dog) for the program and gave birth to many pups that went on to become service dogs.

When Lumina retired from the program, the Jespersens adopted her, and Lumina now acts as a therapy dog.

An open house for anyone interested in learning more about Guiding Eyes for the Blind and puppy raising will be held Thursday, Jan. 31, at 6 p.m. at Christ & Holy Church, 75 Church Lane, Westport. For more information visit volunteer.guidingeyes.org.

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