Kindness in Real Life: Gales Ferry couple raising 15th guide dog candidate

Even the 15th time around, raising a puppy for Guiding Eyes for the Blind is a new adventure for Val and Jim Hazlin.

Lexa, a 10-month-old black Labrador retriever, lay patiently under the kitchen table at their feet during an interview at their home in Gales Ferry Aug. 20. The skill of waiting under a table is one the Hazlins teach their dogs early on to get them used to the position, which is helpful at restaurants and other public places, but it’s one Lexa struggled with for weeks.

“When you’ve raised 14 dogs before this, if they didn’t have some things to work on, it’d be pretty darn boring,” Jim Hazlin said.

He added that while most puppies have a hard time with that particular skill for a few days, he’s learned that they can overcome any skill challenge as long as the training is consistent.

The Hazlins picked up 8-week-old Lexa in December along with her littermates Lana and Locket, who are now living with raisers in Columbia and Colchester. At the time, they were finishing their work with Zora, who left for her final training in January; Val said it was easier letting Zora go with a new puppy in the house, and Jim said it was precious watching her help Lexa learn new things.

Dogs in the program go through about 14 months of training with puppy raisers, who are responsible for not only teaching them skills and behaviors that will eventually assist their future handlers but also socializing them and giving them a happy and healthy puppyhood.

Val Hazlin said it’s a great experience for their grandkids, who spend the summers here and love playing with the dogs and helping with their training. They also brought the kids to Zora’s graduation this summer so they could see how she had progressed since they last saw her.

At the end of their time with the raisers, the dogs train for five to six months with a guide dog instructor, and dogs who graduate are assigned a handler. It takes about a year for the team to get fully adjusted to each other, and the dogs work for eight to 10 years before retirement.

Six of the other 14 dogs the Hazlins have raised so far have gone on to become guide dogs with Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Zora, for example, is with a college freshman who is a cross country runner, so she was also trained as a runner’s guide.

Three others became “career” dogs: one is part of the breeding program, another is a detection dog — dogs who don’t make it through the guide dog program are good candidates for police detection work because they’re so food-driven — and a third is an autism support dog. The remaining five were released for adoption because they weren’t good fits for the program, though they’re still very good dogs.

Regardless of where the dogs end up, staff at Guiding Eyes for the Blind as well as the dogs’ eventual owners often send the Hazlins updates on how the dogs are doing. One of their adoptees, Reggie, now lives with actor Ron Liebman, and their first dog, Axel, traveled with his handler and helped with volunteer programs.

When the man died, his family made a point to call the Hazlins that day to let them know.

“We know we’ve done something really special,” Jim Hazlin said, “but then you realize that whole family, not just the person needing help to get around, their whole family has seen what a difference it’s made in the man’s life to the point where they do a thing like that.”

He highlighted the amount of support and training Guiding Eyes for the Blind gives to its raisers, noting that it improves the experience for everyone and produces a higher percentage of graduates.

Some of the college students they’ve worked with are now working for the organization, and the number of raisers in eastern Connecticut grew so big that the Rhode Island raisers who were commuting to Ledyard every Saturday for classes branched off into their own region of raisers.

“I love having the dogs, but it’s like a second family. It’s a community,” Val Hazlin said. “We have a lot of repeat raisers and I think that’s why they repeat, too.”

“The dogs get people to come and check it out, but it’s the people that have them stay on,” Jim Hazlin added.

For more information on Guiding Eyes for the Blind and local puppy raising programs, email easternctregion@guidingeyes.net.

Kindness in Real Life is a regular feature in The Times. To submit, email times@theday.com.

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