Darien resident Michelle Sini has always loved dogs. Her family of five — which includes Luke, 18, Connor, 15, and Jake, 14, and husband John — own two Labrador retrievers, Ticket and Cocoa.

When she found out a friend was fostering puppies through an organization that provides guide dogs to people with vision loss, “I said, ‘We should do this.’”

The Sinis have been participating in the program, called Guiding Eyes for the Blind, for over three years. They are one of about 45 families in Darien who take part in the program.

Guiding Eyes

Guiding Eyes is a nonprofit organization that provides guide dogs for people with sight disabilities and mobility issues. The dogs offer those individuals mobility, safety and independence as they travel around.

All services are provided completely free of charge. Guiding Eyes is supported through private donations.

There are two main dog breeds that are part of the program — Labrador retrievers and German shepherds.

According to G-Lee Bridges, a puppy socialization manager at the Guiding Eyes Canine Development Center in Patterson, N.Y., there are two programs that use volunteers.

“One is our small in-house volunteer program, the other is the home socialization program,” Bridges said. “I recruit and train and schedule volunteers.”

The Sinis participate in the home socialization program, which has more than 1,500 volunteers. All the volunteers have to live within an hour’s drive of the Guiding Eyes facilities in Patterson, to be able to pick up the puppies, take them home and then bring them back.

Once the puppies graduate from the socialization programs, they get tested in the facility. If a puppy passes, they go to a puppy raiser for one to two years. However, if they fail the test, they can get adopted.

According to the Guiding Eyes website, as guides, puppies need to exhibit confidence, resilience, and a strong bond to the human half of the guide dog team.

These traits can be enhanced, beginning in the first weeks of life, with massage, early training, auditory stimulation, and opportunities to explore and discover the world around them.

Whom the program is for

According to Bridges, the Guiding Eyes program is a “great way” for people to give back to the community and do something that will really make a difference in someone’s life.

Plus, she said, families really enjoy the fostering dog experience.

She added the program is for those who may not be able to have a dog permanently or may not be sure owning a pet is something for them. In this way, they can enjoy having the puppies for a few days, while learning if being a full-time dog owner is something they want to do, Bridges said.

Those that want to foster dogs have a telephone interview and if approved, they have to attend a two-and-a-half-hour training session taught by Bridges.

Currently, due to the coronavirus pandemic, Guiding Eyes is not sending any puppies out to new homes. Those who are interested in the program, however, can apply on online at guidingeyes.org and go through through a telephone interview.

“Once they’re approved, and I can start classes up again, I can invite them to a training session. They can then sign up to take puppies.” Bridges said.

“Making a difference”

The Sinis foster puppies through the Kindergarten Socialization Program, which works with six- to nine-week-old puppies. The puppies travel to three to four different houses within a period of two weeks, in order to be exposed to different kinds of environments and people.

Volunteers do not need to have prior skills in training or massage. Guiding Eyes provides them with six hours of training in three separate sessions.

“When you go to the training at the very beginning, they show you how to give the puppy massages,” Sini said. “It’s supposed to make the dogs more comfortable with the touch.”

Requirements of the program the Sinis chose include being able to physically interact with the puppies — including kneeling, squatting, and bending over — and cleaning up after them.

The Sinis foster puppies for three or four nights at a time.

“We foster about one puppy a month, on average,” Sini said.

Guiding Eyes provides all supplies the foster families need to care for the puppies.

“They give you a bin of dog food, toys, their bowl — everything you need,” she said.

To date, the Sinis have fostered at least 30 different groups of puppies

Since the fosterers have the puppies only for a short period of time, “the puppies can easily reattach to other people,” Sini said.

They attach themselves to the person who feeds and takes care of them, she added.

However, Sini said that the foster families can begin to develop a bond with the puppies.

“It’s very easy to get attached to the puppies,” Sini said. “It was really hard to give them back at times.”

The Sinis teach the puppies commands, such as having them sit before they are given dinner or go the bathroom.

“We give them reinforcement on their training,” she said. The reinforcements are positive words, such as “Good girl, Felicia,” or “Good boy, Felipe,” Sini said.

She added that the puppies have socialized nicely with her family’s two dogs.

Occasionally, her family fosters several puppies at once, who came from the same litter.

The puppies don’t spend time socializing with other dogs.

“They want you to keep the dogs in your own house,” Sini said. “They get socialized in the house and yard.”

She said her favorite part of the program is being able to meet and play with different puppies who are all between the ages of six and eight weeks.

“It is a fun age and it’s almost like having a puppy that never grows up,” she said.

“My friends like to visit when the puppies are here and I had one of the puppies help me with my prom-posal last year,” Luke, a senior at Darien High School, said.

“It is fun to see our older dogs play with the puppies,” Jake said.

Michele Sini added that her family plans to continue volunteering because it has been such a “positive experience for our family and our dogs while helping a great organization.”

For more information on Guiding Eyes for the Blind, visit guidingeyes.org.

sfox@darientimes.com