With his big, blond head and expressive brown eyes, 21-month-old Brahms was an instant attraction as he walked into the Eldersburg branch of the Carroll County Public Library.
Both adults and children stopped to smile at the 72-pound yellow Labrador retriever as he walked past, though he only had eyes for his trainer, Chris Bohmer of Eldersburg.
Using hand signals, Bohmer asked the dog to sit, lay down and move backward, providing small treats when each was completed. Bohmer has been a puppy trainer since 2008 with Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a nonprofit that breeds and trains guide dogs.
Brahms is the 12th dog that Bohmer has trained for a career helping others.
“It’s a lot of work,” Bohmer said. “You always have to keep an eye on them and keep them from getting in trouble.”
Jeanyne Gembarski of Hagerstown is a regional manager for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, overseeing puppy trainers in the Montgomery, Catoctin and Baltimore regions, which includes Carroll and Howard counties. Currently, she is overseeing the training of 50 dogs, though that number could be greater.
“We always have puppies to place,” Gembarski said. “We are short of puppy trainers regionwide. We are really trying to find puppy trainers.”
To become a puppy trainer, one must fill out an application and take a class on puppy raising, Gembarski said.
“They learn dog body language and how to detect when a dog is stressed and what to do,” Gembarski said.
Information about the trainer’s lifestyle, including where they live and with whom, and if there are other animals in the home, such as dogs, cats or birds, is collected in order to match them with an appropriate dog. Either a Lab or German shepherd puppy is placed with approved trainers once the dog is 8 weeks old.
“Both [breeds] are very smart and both are very driven and fill the requirements of guide work,” Gembarski said. “Labs are sillier and easier going. Shepherds are a little bit more sensitive and alert to the environment. Most raise Labs.”
Trainers are responsible for covering expenses for food and treats. Veterinarian costs are provided by the nonprofit, as is a crate for the dog. The nonprofit also covers all required training sessions for the dog, which are held weekly until the dog is about 5 months old. Sessions are then twice a month.
“[The dogs] are exposed to all types of skills and experiences,” Gembarski said. “Everything you are doing is helping the puppies succeed.”
After learning everything from when and where to relieve themselves to refraining from eating human food off the floor, the puppy is returned to New York at about 18 months of age, to begin its second phase of training. For many trainers, it is hard to say goodbye.
“You are going to cry,” Gembarski said. “There is no way you cannot get attached to puppies. You watch them grow and learn and know you had a part in preparing this puppy for such a big job, to change somebody’s life.”
Not every dog is able to handle the second phase.
“There is a lot of responsibility placed on a guide dog,” Gembarski said. “Some dogs can’t handle that kind of pressure. We don’t want to force them.”
Debbie Honick of Finksburg, who is now training her third dog, Gideon, has yet to have one of the puppies she has trained become a guide dog. Her first dog is now a federal agent accelerant detection dog in Kansas and her second is a pet living on a horse farm.
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“You want them to be successful,” Honick said. “If they become guide dogs, I’ll be super stoked. I am proud of them all for different reasons.”
Gideon is “very chill and very laid back,” Honick said. She is co-raising him with another trainer in Perry Hall. They take turns hosting him.
“It gives him a lot of different experiences,” Honick said. “We were concerned about it at first, but it’s really a benefit to the dog. I may be better with certain skills, and she may do better with others. We put everything in an app so I am aware of everything he is doing and what to reinforce or problems to work on.”
Of her 11 dogs, Bohmer has only had three go on to become guide dogs. Some have become pets due to medical issues (such as too many ear infections), one became a breeder to produce more guide dog puppies, and others have gone on to become detection dogs.
Brahms, she said, still has some things to work on. He likes to sniff too much and can still be distracted by other dogs.
“He is super sweet and calmer than a lot of the other dogs,” she said, patting his head. “Everybody comments on his big head. Normally, they’re not this big. He has a big brain to be a smart boy.”