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Lorraine Trapani and Watson are turning adorable puppies into life-changing guide dogs

Lorraine Trapani

Government and Regulatory Affairs,
IBM Corporation

 

Her passion project?

Watson and Guiding Eyes

The bond between blind people and the guide dogs that help them navigate the world goes way beyond the usual person-pet connection. The dogs accompany their charges everywhere, often becoming their strongest link to the world at large.

“It’s not just a pet; that dog becomes a part of them,” says Lorraine Trapani, a member of IBM’s strategy and leadership team for Government and Regulatory Affairs. Trapani is also a puppy raiser for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a non-profit organization in Yorktown Heights, NY, that provides more than 160 service dogs for people with vision and other disabilities every year.

It’s not just a pet; that dog becomes a part of them

Lorraine Trapani

The growing need for guide dogs

In the US, someone becomes blind every seven minutes, and as the Baby Boomer generation faces age-related vision loss, the demand is increasing. Trapani became interested in guide dogs after her late husband, IBMer Michael Trapani, became partially blind, and has been a puppy raiser since 2011. “All of the puppies I raise, I raise in Michael’s name,” she explains.

“He learned to adapt to the loss of his vision, but during that time I saw how challenging it is, not just physically for the individual with vision loss, but emotionally for their families.

“Years after Michael died, a friend invited me to a graduation ceremony at Guiding Eyes. These ceremonies are open to the public and celebrate the partnership between a guide dog and its recipient. They also mark the beginning of Guiding Eyes students’ new lives with their dogs, and salute the hundreds of volunteers who raise these puppies and provide loving homes for the breeder dogs. I was hooked.”

Trapani was at a Guiding Eyes lecture last year when the presenter, Jane Russenberger, spoke about the efforts the group was making to improve the success rate of puppies that go through the program. All told, it costs around US$50,000 to get a dog from breeding all the way to graduation, and most don’t make it that far. For some the job is too stressful; others don’t have the confidence needed to make a thousand micro-decisions daily for their owner; some just don’t enjoy the work.

Russenberger, the agency’s senior director of genetics and breeding, explains that Guiding Eyes has been collecting data on their dogs since 1995. The data comes from veterinarians, puppy testers, puppy socializers, puppy raisers, and guide dog trainers — basically everybody who passes through a guide dog’s life before it graduates.

“She said they were trying to analyze that data to improve the dogs’ success rate, so I asked her if she had ever heard about Watson, and offered to send her a link to try it,” said Trapani. “Their board had already approached IBM about moving all that data onto IBM Cloud, making the data available for analysis and sharing. The groundwork was already laid, and it just took off.”

IBM customer relations specialist Alex Carrasquillo with TJ

A perfect match between Watson and Guiding Eyes

“In 2016, we were given the opportunity to do a project with San Jose State University to see if Watson could improve our predictions of whether a dog that was already in training would be successful as a guide dog,” continues Russenberger. Guiding Eyes migrated more than half a million canine health records and more than 65,000 temperament records on thousands of dogs to the IBM Cloud. The resulting analysis helped Guiding Eyes better predict which dogs would make it through the program.

“We had an 85 percent prediction accuracy based on a PhD study at a top university,” says Russenberger. “Using the same data set, Watson was able to predict success with 100 percent accuracy.”

Taking the next step, researchers used IBM Watson Personality Insights and Natural Language Processing to find patterns, traits and characteristics — both human and canine — that would help create successful matches between dogs and trainers. 

“I was just blown away,” Russenberger says. “They were able to predict if a puppy raiser would be successful with a particular dog. Watson was able to use the natural language comments in our records to do that, which is something we hadn’t been able to do at all.”

Trapani says getting all the variables right is critical, not only for the puppies and the people they will eventually serve, but for the puppy raisers as well. “It’s very expensive to put a dog through the program, and it’s all supported by private donations,” she says. “So it’s costly to fail, and it’s heartbreaking to fail, because you have people like me who devote a year of their time and emotionally invest in the success of a puppy, and when that puppy doesn’t succeed, you feel like you failed them somehow.”

Trapani is now raising a puppy that IBM is sponsoring. TJ is a confident, 9-month-old yellow lab, and a regular at the IBM Learning Center in Armonk. He welcomes new hires to IBM, helping them understand the power of Watson. When visiting other locations, including Trapani’s office in Armonk, he’s learning to sit quietly in his bed, playing with toys or napping while she works. When they’re not at work, he accompanies her to stores and restaurants, resisting temptation on all sides.

She loves them enough to let them go

Clearly fond of TJ, who has an abundance of personality, Trapani says that even though this is her sixth Guiding Eyes dog, giving them up at the end of a year never gets easier — but it’s all worth it.

I want this puppy to go off and help someone in my husband’s name

Lorraine Trapani

“The weeks that lead up to their return to Guiding Eyes are hard. I think it must be like sending a kid off to college. You miss them every day, but you want them to succeed in life.

“It’s heart-wrenching … but the thinking side of me says this puppy can’t achieve what I want him to achieve in Michael’s honor if he stays with me.”

After a minimum of six months with a professional trainer, a puppy is ready to meet the person it will spend virtually every moment with for the next eight or so years. And Trapani gets to see the puppy again at graduation — and sometimes even after that.

“The first puppy I raised works for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) coordinator at the Massachusetts State House in Boston. Recently, Carl invited me — on behalf of his dog Merrick — to ‘Take Your Mother To Work’ day. I had the privilege of meeting those with whom Merrick works, and seeing how gracefully and carefully Merrick guides Carl to work every day on public transportation and through Boston’s busy streets.”

As a result of TJ and Trapani’s involvement with Guiding Eyes and Watson, a crew from CBS News went to work with them for a story that ran in July. “Since the segment aired, so many people have reached out,” she says. Those groups include the USMC Wounded Warrior Regiment and American Humane, as well as the Endangered Wildlife Trust in South Africa, which is already working with IBM on a program to save endangered rhinos.

In late 2017, Trapani, Russenberger and Daryl Pereira, creative content director for Watson and Cloud Platform marketing, hosted an IBM Design Thinking “Dog Collar Jobs” workshop in Washington, D.C. Their goal was to explore the applicability of the technology to other working dog programs within the military, law enforcement and other government agencies and not-for- profits.

“There is a growing critical need for qualified working dogs,” she says, “and we believe this technology can help so many agencies develop more dogs to successfully fill those roles.”

Looking to Watson for even better results

As for Watson’s relationship with the dogs at Guiding Eyes, Russenberger says the first study “was a dip in the water,” and a deeper dive is in the works. “The real question is whether Watson can give us a reliable prediction of success early in a dog’s life. Right now, we graduate about 50 percent of the puppies that start training with us. That’s not good enough.

“Guiding Eyes will be collecting data for the next year and a half on 350 to 500 puppies wearing monitors measuring heart rate and movement during tests,” she says. “We’ll monitor them for stress through early socialization, through puppy raising, and through training. Watson will then analyze the complex interplay between genetics and environmental influences that shape each dog’s personality. Insights gained can increase our ability to predict which pups will be successful with which people and could have such a positive impact on the percentage of dogs we graduate.”

For Trapani, the hard work and sacrifices she makes as a puppy raiser pay big dividends in the changes the dogs make in their humans’ lives.

“A man with five daughters, who received a guide dog I had raised, said, ‘Ed is the son I never had. With Ed, I’m doing things I haven’t done since I lost my sight. He gave me my independence back.’ Another recipient told me he lost his vision at 16 years old. He said, ‘I was just learning to drive, and hadn’t yet started dating.’ He said the following few years were very difficult, but ‘then I got a guide dog, and I’m sitting on a park bench and someone sits down and tells me what a beautiful dog I have, and suddenly I’m going for coffee, then I’m going for dinner, and then I’m getting married … to the woman my guide dog most liked!’”

IBM and Watson are helping Guiding Eyes raise and train successful guide dogs so that more visually impaired people can get the help they need. Learn more:

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