Andy Fox—Helping Others See
This is the fifth of six articles that will examine lawyers and their work practices by day in contrast to the personal interests that they pursue outside of the office. The goal of this column is to enlighten our readers about the private endeavors of attorneys with whom we come in contact in the profession. It is our hope that this series of articles allows our readers to see the other side of lawyers who manage to pursue unique interests despite their demanding careers.
Andy Fox, an assistant city attorney for the city of Norfolk, Virginia, has been raising puppies to grow up to be guide dogs for the blind and visually-impaired longer than he has been practicing law. His volunteer relationship with the Westchester County, New York-based organization Guiding Eyes for the Blind began in 1998, when the then-Naval officer and his wife Colleen, a veterinarian, were out walking their own dog and a passing neighbor already affiliated with the nonprofit’s local group suggested that the Foxes become involved.
“Colleen had heard good things about Guiding Eyes in veterinary school,” recalls Fox. “And while I was unacquainted with the organization, it seemed like an ideal way to join our love for animals with a very worthy cause.” Soon after the conversation with their neighbor, the couple volunteered to raise their first program pup, Raider. Over the next nine years (taking a year off here and there to start a family of their own), the Foxes have successfully raised five puppies to adulthood. Currently, they are raising their sixth Guiding Eyes puppy—Justine, a three-month-old black Labrador retriever.
Established in 1954, Guiding Eyes for the Blind breeds, raises, and trains guide dogs, and also instructs blind and visually impaired persons in partnering with dogs that have been carefully selected to match their individual needs. Guiding Eyes’ guide dogs, training programs, and life-long follow-up support (conservatively valued at $45,000) are completely free of charge, and are made possible through the generous support of individuals, corporations, foundations, and organizations.
At its Patterson, New York, canine development center, Guiding Eyes breeds primarily black and yellow Labrador retrievers, along with some German shepherds and golden retrievers. Because of their even temperament, intelligence, and adaptability, Labs are particularly well-suited for guide work. At one- to two months of age, the puppies are sent to live with volunteer raisers throughout 38 regions located in eleven East Coast states, from Maine to North Carolina, as well as in Ohio and West Virginia. Although puppy raisers are not required to have prior experience with dogs, they are expected to provide a safe, caring environment for puppies for their first 18 months. During this time, puppy raisers begin preparing the dogs for their future as guide dogs by following a well-defined program designed to teach them obedience, build confidence, and bring out their potential.
Fox’s wife Colleen with their first Guiding Eyes pup, Raider.
“You get the dogs at eight weeks old—they don’t know their names, they aren’t housebroken, so a lot of what you do is what you’d do with any dog,” explains Fox. “But because they’re being trained to become guide dogs, they need to have better-than-average manners: no food from the table, no getting up on furniture, and no ignoring commands.”
For puppy raisers, the focus is on socialization: “As future guide dogs, they need to be able to go out in the world and be exposed to people, crowds, and traffic. They need to be comfortable in all types of weather conditions, and [must be] unfazed aboard buses and subway trains,” says Fox. “Furthermore, as raisers, we teach the dog to have confidence, to make decisions: he can’t always go where his partner wants to go, sometimes he needs to resist—there have been cases when the elevator doors open and the elevator isn’t there.”
Fox and his puppy-on-loan attend biweekly local Guiding Eyes-sponsored training classes. In addition, Fox, a New Orleans, Louisiana, native who attended Cornell University on a Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship, devotes a minimum of a half-hour to Justine daily: “Prospective guide dogs need to get used to being handled. In service, they’re handled frequently: partners check their companion with a routine feel-over to make sure they’re OK and haven’t sustained any cuts or injuries.”
The remainder of Justine’s time is spent either interacting with the Fox’s two young children, two family dogs (also Labs), and two cats, or accompanying Dr. Fox to her veterinarian practice in Virginia Beach, not far from the family’s Norfolk home. Soon, when Justine is a bit older and has advanced to wearing a service-dog-in-training jacket, she will go to work with Fox at the city’s attorney office, where he defends the city in civil rights, employment, and general litigation in Virginia state and federal courts, and advises various city agency and department heads on legal issues.
Before graduating from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 2004, Fox occasionally took his then-Guiding Eyes puppies to class. The other students were never bothered by it. “Far from it,” says Fox, “the dogs were always a welcome diversion from the work at hand.”
At approximately 16 months old, the young dogs are brought back to Westchester, where their future occupations are determined. At the program’s training school in Yorktown Heights, New York, each dog is assessed in areas of general obedience, noise, confidence, and reactions. Those with the “right stuff” begin months of training, culminating in a 26-day residential program in which the four-legged companions are paired with their two-legged partners.
Although only a few of Guiding Eyes’ guide dogs (like Salty, celebrated for leading his blind master safely down from the 71st floor of One World Trade Center on 9/11) will make the papers, its scores of other well-trained, hard-working graduates are remembered for performing other everyday yet vital services.
After being raised by the Foxes, Harkin was paired with Tom Massa, a visually impaired former New York City bus driver living in Mays Landing, New Jersey, for three years until the yellow Lab was felled by lymphoma. “Harkin was a great help to me,” recalls Massa. “When I sometimes bump into people, they don’t always know that I’m visually impaired, so a guide dog makes it very clear. Also, I can’t see elevations at curbs. A guide dog stops immediately at curbs, which informs me with the harness that something is coming up.”
According to Guiding Eyes’ regional marketing director, Linda Damato, not only does a guide dog endow his blind partner with a dignity and new sense of freedom, he also leaves his puppy raiser with lasting lessons in patience, “stick-to-it-iveness,” and fun.
Not surprisingly, not every GEB canine is cut out to be a guide dog; some do better as accelerant detectors for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, while others ultimately make great pets. Of the five puppies that Fox and his wife raised, two grew up to become guide dogs, two became detectors, and one was adopted by a family.
“No matter what they go on to do, the parting is difficult,” says Fox. “But once you’ve attended a training school graduation ceremony [puppy raisers often travel to Yorktown Heights to see the dogs they raised graduate and meet their blind partners], it brings everything into perspective.”
Also, he adds, getting another puppy to raise as soon as possible helps a lot too.
For information about volunteer puppy-raising opportunities with Guiding Eyes for the Blind, visit www.cdc.guidingeyes.org or call 1-866-GEB-LABS. DB
Patrick Folliard is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md.
From the September/October 2007 issue of Diversity & The Bar®