By Analeigh Hughes
The start of the fall semester has brought thousands of new students to this university. They’re varying in age, come from around the world and all have different journeys.
Some of them aren’t even human.
This year, there has been a huge presence of guide dogs-in-training on this campus. In the past they may have been a rare sighting, but now it’s not uncommon to see them all over campus and in College Park.
Rudy is one of these puppies. The 4-month-old black Labrador Retriever will one day be a guide dog for a visually-impaired person. For now, he’s being raised by Laura Weber, a student at this university.
Werber, a junior communication major, also happens to be the president of the Guide Dog Foundation at this university. After being the first person to raise a Guide Dog Foundation puppy at this university last fall, Weber started the club during the spring semester. She wanted to have experience training a dog on campus before starting the club so that she could provide future puppy raisers with the best support.
The Guide Dog Foundation is part of a larger national organization, the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, which oversees the breeding, training and placement of guide dogs for visually-impaired people.
Students such as Werber are considered “puppy raisers.” To be eligible to become a puppy raiser, students must be at least a sophomore and live in an apartment or house to make sure that there is ample room for a growing puppy. After filling out paperwork on Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind’s website, students are invited to attend puppy-raising classes and watch a dog for a few days to make sure it is something they are really interested in.
Raisers receive their puppies when they are between 8 and 10 weeks old and train them until they are 16 months old. During this time, they prepare the puppies for their more serious guide-dog training by exposing them to as many different environments as possible and teaching them basic commands such as “sit” and “stay.” Trainers are required to take their puppy to two training classes a month, which are offered both on campus and in nearby towns.
Currently, there are six puppies on campus Three more expected to arrive on campus by the end of October with around 10 raisers. There are dogs being trained on campus through other organizations, but dogs being trained through the Guide Dog Foundation can be identified by their yellow vests.
Because raising a puppy can be a huge time commitment, especially with the demanding schedules of college students, each puppy on campus is given two “co-raisers” who share the responsibilities of puppy raising. There are also “puppy watchers” who babysit puppies for a few hours if both of their raisers are unable to have them. All of the puppies are Black Labrador retrievers, which is the preferred breed for guide dogs because they are “food motivated and pretty easy to train.”
Werber believes the most challenging part of raising a puppy is saying goodbye when it’s time for the puppy to go for its formal guide dog training at the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind headquarters in Smithtown, New York.
“It’s like your dog is going off to college,” she said.
However, puppy trainers are kept in the loop about their puppy’s training through photos and updates. When the puppy finishes training, a graduation ceremony is held at the headquarters and the puppy trainer is invited to come.
Werber says all the dogs have their own goofy, individual personalities and are “such loving, amazing dogs.”
One of Werber’s favorite memories is of Simba, a puppy she previously raised. She brought him to her psychology class one day, and he fell asleep upside down. He began having dreams and barking in the middle of the class. The professor stopped talking and looked at her, and she could hear whispers throughout the room. “People didn’t realize a dog was there the entire time.”
Even though it’s “fun to have a buddy with you,” Werber believes the most rewarding part is knowing that your hard work is going to help a visually-impaired person live a more independent life.
“Just by raising a puppy I am able to give this to someone,” she said.
Werber once worked with a person who had a service dog and was able to see firsthand how beneficial these dogs can be to people who need them.
“I know people who have guide dogs help them and how much independence the guide dog is able to help them gain.”
Featured Photo Credit: All photo’s belong to Laura Werber
Analeigh Hughes is a sophomore journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.