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Categories: COMMUNITY & NEWS, Feb/March 2022

Perfect vision: Active and retired guide dogs find purpose throughout their lives

By Jane Winston
Photography by Mike Young

This is the third in a series of articles about the Vision Project Program. Read the first two articles at

The Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind in Smithtown, New York, breeds select dogs to become guide dogs. The pups are transported across the United States for their initial training. Some make their way to Central Georgia and the Burrus Correctional Training Center (BCTC) in Forsyth through the Vision Project Program.

The inmates of BCTC are the initial trainers for these pups as they begin the long, expensive journey to become certified guide dogs. BCTC inmates and staff train the pups during the week. On the weekends, local families take the dogs for immersion in life beyond the correctional setting. BCTC and the families are in close contact and share the same mission: teaching the pups discipline, commands, obedience, confidence and socialization as they work toward being the eyes for an unsighted person.

In this article, we’ll explore what life is like for the pups after they graduate from BCTC and their weekend training, and return to where their journey began to complete their extensive “fine tuning” to become certified guide dogs.

Meet Rubble, a yellow lab/golden retriever mix who graduated from BCTC and his weekend puppy trainers a few years ago and headed back to New York, where he completed the final portion of the program and was placed in the home of a blind woman. She eventually became non-ambulatory and had no need for Rubble.

The Guide Dog Foundation reached out to the McCormicks from Macon, who had been Rubble’s weekend puppy raisers, asking if they would like to adopt him.

“We were thrilled and of course never expected to see Rubble again, let alone have him move back into our home,” said Shannon McCormick.

In late November, Rubble came back home to Macon. With three young sons and Christmas just around the corner, Shannon and her husband had the idea of housing Rubble elsewhere until Christmas in order to surprise their boys. She contacted BCTC and asked if they would be willing to keep Rubble until Christmas. They agreed and welcomed the opportunity for the inmates to see first-hand a pup that began with them and became a fully-trained, certified guide dog. It was a win-win for all involved.

What a Christmas-morning treat for the three McCormick boys when Rubble, who they knew and had helped train, moved into his “furever” home!

It was then that Shannon began using Rubble as a therapy dog, primarily at Atrium Health Navicent Beverly Knight Olson Children’s Hospital in Macon.

“The joy and love Rubble brought to the children and their families was amazing. He became another heartbeat for those struggling,” Shannon said. “The kids loved it when Rubble put his head on the bed for them to pet and they marveled at being able to give Rubble commands, which he would obey! Sharing Rubble with individuals experiencing stress was and is another win-win situation.”

And then there is Edgar, a Labrador. Edgar has had the good fortune of spending weekends with Janis Haley, a Maconite and long-time weekend puppy raiser. After Edgar completed his training at BCTC, Janis bade farewell to him — as she has with many dogs through the years — and sent him back to Smithtown, New York, for the final phases of his guide dog training.

In New York, after a few more weeks of stringent training, the dogs are ready for their final tests. Blindfolded instructors perform the final obedience test, including off-leash recall in an enclosed indoor setting; the final blindfold test, when the instructor walks a route on an urban street and sidewalk for 40-50 minutes and requires the dog to perform sits and downs in harness at any point en route; the final building test, when dog and instructor work their way through a mall while staying focused in the food court areas and navigating escalators, elevators and stairs; and the final traffic test, when dog and instructor encounter staged traffic checks that require the dog to demonstrate all types of traffic avoidance responses. Dogs that pass these tests are considered “class ready” and are ready to be paired with a client.

At the conclusion of his training, Edgar was paired and placed with John in King’s Park, New York. A local Lions Club sent Janis a video of John and Edgar at the end of their first week together. John was exuberant about his well-trained dog — his third over the years.

“These guide dogs allow me to get around, do things, develop confidence and stay independent. Edgar lives with me now, and he’ll hang out with me at the Veteran’s Hospital daily and help me and my grandchildren fly to Walt Disney World,” John said.

Next is Kelly, a small shepherd who is not a Georgia-trained dog. However, her owner, Judy Herndon Burch, is a Macon native and a graduate of the Georgia Academy for the Blind and Mercer University. She retired a year ago and currently lives in Florida.

Kelly is Judy’s seventh guide dog. Her first guide-dog experience was while at Mercer, with Buffy, followed through the years by Annie, Splash, Irva, Louella, Indy and now Kelly. A favorite story she shared occurred on the Mercer campus.

“There had been a huge storm that knocked down power lines during my sociology class. After class, Buffy and I happily headed for the student center, as usual. A gentleman watching us walk through downed, live power lines was so alarmed and wanted to reach out and help, but was uncertain as to how. We made it to the student center, as on any other day, and he and others watching were simply amazed to see how Buffy led me safely through the fallen power lines,” Judy said.

Judy could not say enough about the impact her guide dogs have had on her life.

“They have allowed me to be mobile, faster and more independent. The dog’s years of training have resulted in blind people like me being able to enjoy life and have a life,” she said.

Bud, a yellow lab, is Anne Pye’s twelfth guide-dog-in-training. Anne lives in Milner and has been a weekend puppy raiser since about 2013. Her interest in the Vision Project Program began when she came to BCTC as a nurse.

“At first, I merely interacted with the pups on campus, and ultimately got talked into taking a pup home. As is often said, ‘The rest is history.’ I have been bringing them home ever since — some just for weekend raising and some through adoption,” Anne said. “Being at BCTC with the pups is a real treat on one hand, but difficult on the other. I get to know most of them, and it is bittersweet when they leave to go back to New York. I know that is why the inmates train them; I know that is why they are here. Nonetheless, it is difficult for all involved the day they leave us.”

To get involved
Call Lundianne Johnson, the on-site director of the program, at 478-994-7586, if you’re interested in becoming a weekend raiser. Call Shannon McCormick at 478-361-3602 if you’re interested in talking with a weekend puppy raiser.