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These eyes have paws

By Matt Adams, June 08, 2017

On an otherwise normal morning in April, the hum of bustling travelers at Newark Liberty International Airport was joined by the jingle of leashes and the patter of paws as 90 puppies from counties in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania converged on the airport for a very important day of learning.

For two consecutive Saturdays each spring, groups of puppies – most of them between the ages of five and 18 months – travel to Newark Liberty International Airport with their foster families as part of their development as service dogs for the blind. The airport trip has been an annual event for 25 years and continues thanks to the support of United Airlines, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and The Seeing Eye, Inc., a Morristown, New Jersey, nonprofit that breeds and trains puppies to become certified Seeing Eye® dogs.

Since the 1980s, Seeing Eye volunteers Janet Keeler and Carmella Passaro have organized field trips such as this to help familiarize the dogs with the kinds of real-world situations that they will encounter once their training is complete and they are adopted by blind owners. Over the past 10 years, they have worked with NewarkAirport Station Operations Manager Maureen Briody to coordinate their visit to our terminal, which even includes a mock flight designed to give the puppies the experience of boarding a plane.

"This type of training is very important to the customers who will rely on these guide animals," Maureen said. "Not only do we expose the dogs to the sights, sounds and smells of the airport, we also teach the foster families and their support organizations what the puppies' future owners will need to know about traveling with service animals."

The puppies' day began at the Port Authority administration building, where they paraded past a fire rescue vehicle to get better acquainted with the noise and learn to avoid the spray of the water cannon. Next, they boarded buses to United's Terminal C and practiced navigating the concourse, baggage claim areas, the intra-airport monorail and the departure gates.

United Airport Operations Coordinator Jean Browne made gate announcements from the podium before the puppies boarded a United aircraft, giving them a realistic sense of the sounds associated with flying. The group then filed down the jetbridge and took their places on board, with the puppies sitting obediently underneath the seats in front of them. Once situated, Jean and retired United 787 Captain Peter Hernandez, who volunteered to serve as the day's honorary pilot, made "inflight announcements" over the public address system and talked with the foster families about things they should keep in mind while training the dogs for flying.

While it's true that this was a critical experience for the dogs, there was also a secondary benefit to hosting them at the airport: lots and lots of smiles. "The customers love it," Maureen said with a wide grin, "the kids especially; it just makes everyone happy when that long line of puppies goes past them. It's always fun to see people's reaction." Some of our employees, like Newark Airport Customer Service Representative Nanette Marques-Freitas, have themselves been moved to foster puppies for The Seeing Eye after witnessing the event.

"We fostered our first one, Dancer, last year, and we're waiting on a second puppy to begin fostering this year," Nanette said. "I'm hoping to give it a name in honor of United, maybe something like 'Polaris' or 'Ursa.' What do you think?"

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