Math, English... and Obedience? College Students Raise Guide Dogs

Haley Argersinger and Gibbs
Haley Argersinger poses with her dog, Gibbs, before he goes back to Guiding Eyes for the Blind for his big test.

For many students, college is a last chance to dodge the responsibilities of the adult world. But a handful of students at Alfred University in New York state are voluntarily taking on a responsibility that could change someone's life forever: They're raising guide dogs for Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

Puppy raisers are given young puppies — typically around 9 weeks old — to socialize during the first year or so of the pups' lives. They are responsible for introducing the dogs to sights, smells, sounds and experiences they might encounter in their careers as guide dogs. A working guide dog can't be jumpy around buses if he's assigned to a visually impaired city dweller. Or if he goes to someone who lives on a farm, he will have to be confident around horses and other large animals. Socializing these dogs is a huge responsibility — and one that requires a very special college student. 

And that's where a small group of committed students at Alfred comes in.

Assuming Responsibility

Junior Haley Argersinger received her puppy, a sweet, excitable 10-week-old black Labrador named Gibbs, in the summer of 2013.

Jordan the Lab
All the guide dog hopefuls who have been raised at Alfred University are Labradors. This is Jordan.

"It was overwhelming because I was happy, excited, and I was also extremely nervous. This is a dog that could have a huge future, and you're a part of that," she says. "It was definitely a life-changing experience."

As every prospective puppy raiser is required to do, Argersinger attended informational classes about the program, puppy-sat some of the other Guiding Eyes dogs and went through six hours of training before she was eligible to receive her own dog. From the moment of Gibbs's arrival, Argersinger knew he would make a great working dog.

For the next year, Argersinger built Gibbs's confidence with new experiences, building in difficulty and distraction levels as the Lab aged. He accompanied Argersinger to the barn when she went to ride horses, and he always listened to commands, even around an animal many times his size. He grew accustomed to busy sidewalks, deer, university classrooms and squirrels. He even learned to navigate hardwood floors, which can be tricky for some dogs.

Balancing Act

Shawn Carstens, a volunteer with the Southern Tier New York Puppy Raising Region of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, serves as advisor to the club at Alfred and routinely puppy-sits the dogs who are in training. Carstens has experience training service dogs; she also has cats, a Shih Tzu, fish and hardwood floors, not to mention children — all of which provide valuable socialization experiences for a potential guide dog.

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