Guiding Eyes

Guiding Eyes

Cawley, Guiding Eyes’ CEO Thomas Panek, and guide dog team at the 2019 New York City Half Marathon.

Cawley, Guiding Eyes’ CEO Thomas Panek, and guide dog team at the 2019 New York City Half Marathon.

Ben cawley ’96 is director of training at guiding eyes for the blind, a nonprofit that provides trained dogs to the blind and visually impaired.

My favorite part of working here, hands down, is the day when we are able to give [the handlers] the gift of these dogs and they meet each other for the first time — just to experience that joy. It’s like Christmas morning. It’s pretty special.

— Ben Cawley ’96

With a slow wave of his hand in the air — as casually as one might shield sun from the face — Ben Cawley ’96 commanded his dog, Becky, to sit. And with grace and precision, the sleek yellow Labrador retriever yielded. Cawley rewarded her with a gentle “yesss” and a treat, and then the pair was off again.

Becky is an impeccably trained guide dog at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a nonprofit orga- nization that provides bred and trained dogs across the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico to people with vision loss. At two years old, she is almost ready to graduate into the real world and be matched with a guide dog user.

Cawley is the director of training at Guiding Eyes and has been in the industry for more than 20 years. In his current role, he runs the entire guide dog process from the moment the dogs enter training at about 18 months old until they retire. He also over- sees the instruction of the school’s visually impaired or blind students as they learn to work and live with their dogs.

“We have incredible, incredible dogs. They are perfectly bred Labradors and German shepherds and they are just amazing animals,” Cawley said as he led Becky on a walk with steady confidence. “We have the opportunity to take one of these amazing animals, train it, and place it with a blind person who has been working very hard – oftentimes years – in order to be qualified to get a guide dog.”

Becky and all of the dogs at Guiding Eyes are specially bred for temperament and health. They are raised by volunteers for socialization, and then professionally trained at one of the Guiding Eyes campuses in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.

 Cawley, Becky, and pals enjoy a little down time.

Cawley, Becky, and pals enjoy a little down time.

Taught through positive reinforcement, the guide dogs learn to be confident in all environ- ments and situations, to problem-solve, and to make decisions on their own. They must dem- onstrate a low distraction level, have impeccable house and social manners, and be able to remain settled for several hours at a time when needed.

It takes years and an estimated $50,000 to breed, raise, train, and match a guide dog to a visually impaired person, and then intensive instruction to make the pair a functioning “guide dog team.” But, to Cawley, the whole progression is worth it.

“We commit to keeping them safe and serv- ing them into the future,” Cawley said of the care offered to the guide dogs and their han- dlers. “They graduate and go home and they might have their dogs for eight to ten years after they graduate; we help them with anything they might need along the way"

Founded in 1954, Guiding Eyes matches more than 150 guide dog teams each year at no cost to the people who need them.

Guiding Eyes also has a “running guides” program which trains guide dogs to safely lead their handlers while on exercise runs. The program is the only one of its kind in the world. In 2019, Cawley and his team helped Guiding Eyes’ CEO Thomas Panek make his- tory as the first-ever blind person to run the New York City Half Marathon with a relay team of guide dogs.

While developing the running program, Cawley and his team realized that the tradi- tional leather guide dog harness just wasn’t as efficient as they needed it to be for the wear and tear of exercise.

So, Cawley and Guiding Eyes bridged a partnership with the performance dog gear company RuffWear to create a specially designed guide dog running harness. Called the UniFly Harness, it’s being manufactured and used around the globe.

Cawley is originally from Willimantic, Conn. When he began the college selection process, his parents recommended he investigate Jesuit education and he was drawn to Fairfield by its strong academic reputation. “Fairfield was the only school where I felt at home after touring the campus,” Cawley said. “It was beautiful, I loved the size, and I just knew it would be a good fit.”

 Ben Cawley ’96 walks with Becky, a two-year-old Labrador retriever, in the Guiding Eyes training program.

Ben Cawley ’96 walks with Becky, a two-year-old Labrador retriever, in the Guiding Eyes training program.

Cawley was a premed student, and graduated with a degree in biology. He has fond recollections of his student days, living with friends in Campion and Claver Halls as well as down at the beach. He enjoyed his first exposure to scientific research working with his advisor, Phyllis Braun, PhD, professor of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences, on her study concerning yeast cells.

As a sophomore, he took a summer job at a salmon cannery in Alaska alongside other college students from all over the country. He returned to the job on Kodiak Island every summer during his career at Fairfield, traveling there each time on a rickety, four-seater plane that skidded along a dirt runway into the far- flung fishing village.

After graduation, he accepted a position with DeKalb Genetics as a research assistant developing things like drought-resistant corn and other agricultural products. He had always wanted a dog, so his parents gifted him an Australian shepherd puppy as a graduation present.

When Cawley’s role at DeKalb went stale, he dedicated himself to training his new dog, and with his background in biology began investigating the arena of animal behavior and guide dog training as a profession.

Cawley was offered and accepted a position at a guide dog school in northern California where he was a guide dog mobility instructor from 1998 until 2012. He learned that the occupation is much more than simply training dogs — it requires knowledge in a number of fields including psychology; education; and animal health, behavior, and husbandry.

“Having my degree from Fairfield University has allowed me to excel in this field,” Cawley said. “Just to have that really robust education that I got from the Jesuits. Not only did it drive me towards service work but it allowed me to really experience the world and see how many different ways there are to live.”

In 2012, Cawley and his wife Nancy had young children and were hoping to move back east to be closer to relatives when the opportunity presented itself at Guiding Eyes. These days, the couple lives with their two sons in Shrub Oak, N.Y. After more than two decades, Cawley still finds his work gratifying.

“My favorite part of working here, hands down, is the day when we are able to give [the handlers] the gift of these dogs and they meet each other for the first time — just to experience that joy. It’s like Christmas morning. It’s pretty special.”

Other Articles in the Fall 2020 Issue

Alumni Profile: Hugh Morgan '69

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Alumni Profile: Katie Burke '96

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Donor Profile: Bob Venero P'21, '24

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The Original lady laxers

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Art Inspired

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Goodbye, Mr. Fitz

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A New Chapter

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Letter from the President

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