Math, English… and Obedience? College Students Raise Guide Dogs
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.
Junior Haley Argersinger received her puppy, a sweet, excitable 10-week-old black Labrador named Gibbs, in the summer of 2013.
"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.
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.
Carstens, who lives near the university, says raising puppies on a college campus has some not-so-obvious challenges. Although some college kids have dogs, the situation is different for the student puppy raisers: It’s not like having a pet on campus, because these dogs are not pets.
This can lead to some unusual situations, for both the dogs and their handlers. In the bustling environment of a university, students who are excited to see a dog may run up to the puppy and start playing with it without the handler’s permission. This is a problem because grown-up, working guide dogs are not to be petted or played with while they are on duty. And when one handler’s friend wanted to give her puppy a water bottle to play with, the handler had to say no. A guide dog can’t be stealing water bottles off the end table because he thinks they are toys.
Plenty of students see the puppies and say they’re interested in raising one, and Carstens works to determine which students are truly ready for the commitment. Puppy raisers must balance raising a working dog with classes, homework and jobs. "They have to learn what a dramatic impact on their day-to-day life this is going to have," she says.
Life After College
So far, six Labradors have completed the puppy raising program at Alfred: Three graduated as guide dogs, one works in law enforcement, and another is living the good life as a family pet. The sixth, Argersinger’s dog, took on an impressive job as a detection dog for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Even though it turned out he wasn’t suited to being a guide dog, Argersinger says, she could always tell that Gibbs had the passion to be a working dog. When he left, just shy of 15 months old, Argersinger was flooded with conflicting emotions.
"I’m actually quite proud of myself. I cried my eyes out two nights before he went back. It was just the initial shock of ‘How am I going to live without him?’ My little buddy was leaving me," she says. "The day they had to take him back got here, and I was a mixture of emotions. I was happy he was going on to bigger things. No matter what career he chose, he was going to touch someone else’s life."
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