Not just puppy love: Unity students raising guide dogs for the blind

UNITY, Maine — Service learning and working hands-on with animals have long been a part of Unity College’s unique curriculum.

So it seemed fitting when the wife of a former Unity College faculty member approached the school to propose students become involved in raising puppies to help improve the lives of visually-impaired people.

This fall, Mac and Malcolm – two Labrador retriever puppies bred by the group Guiding Eyes for the Blind – arrived on campus, where they are being lovingly raised by four Unity College undergraduates as part of Guiding Eyes’s puppy raising program.

Based in Patterson, N.Y., Guiding Eyes is a nonprofit organization that provides trained guide dogs to blind or visually impaired men and women. Dogs not suited for guide work also go on to become service dogs for children on the autism spectrum, work as therapy or police dogs, or perform other service work.

Founded in 1954 by Donald Kauth, Guiding Eyes has graduated more than 7,000 guide dog teams and places approximately 150 dogs annually.

It costs approximately $50,000 per dog to breed, raise, train, and match a dog, as well as to support the dog and its match throughout their lives together, according to Guiding Eyes officials. The organization offers its services free to qualified people.

This fall, Guiding Eyes puppies arrived on campus to be raised by Unity College undergraduates Nikki Viveiros ‘16, an Adventure Therapy major from Somerset, Mass.; Mikala Robinson ’15, a Conservation Law Enforcement major from Danvers, Mass., Megan Carroll ‘18, a Wildlife and Fisheries Management major from Meriden, Conn.; and Georgia Male ’17, a Captive Wildlife Care and Education major from Old Lyme, Conn.

It’s a new partnership that involves current students, current and past Unity staff and faculty, and a 1987 Unity alum who now serves as a senior-level dog trainer for Guiding Eyes in New York.

“It’s a great example of hands-on field work, service learning and environmental stewardship that involves so many in our community,” said Dr. Melik Peter Khoury, executive vice president and president-elect. “This is a very Unity story. We are a community that’s always using talent, curiosity, and teamwork to help solve real-world problems and create a better world for people who are struggling.”

“I had thought about it for a while,” said Susan Bakaley Marshall, a Guiding Eyes representative who helped initiate the puppy raising program on campus. “My husband, Chris, taught at Unity for 35 years, so I’ve brought dogs onto campus many times and in buildings. It’s a good socialization place.”

Eventually, Marshall approached Dr. Sarah Cunningham, director of the Center for Experiential and Environmental Education at Unity College, about the possibility of bringing guide dog candidates to work with students on campus.

“She was really glad for me to come in and do a presentation,” Marshall said.

Cunningham said she had been searching for alternative types of training in her Animal Training classes.

“Engaging our students as puppy raisers for Guiding Eyes for the Blind is a natural fit with our programs here at Unity,” said Cunningham, a self-described animal lover. “Our students are all committed to helping their communities, and they love applying their studies to real work that makes a difference in the world.

“So students who might take a class in Animal Training as part of the Captive Wildlife Care and Education program, or who are interested in applying an Adventure Therapy degree to work in animal-assisted therapy, can get real hands-on experience with the material they learn in class,” she said.

“Plus,” she said, “it means we have puppies on campus!”

Guiding Eyes supplied Marshall with her first puppy to raise in 2004. She’s now been doing it for 11 years, and the relationships between her and her dogs have been lasting ones.

“I’ve raised five dogs, four of them are guide dogs,” she said, and it’s easy to imagine Marshall as something like a proud foster parent: “There’s one in Spain,” she said, “one in Colorado, one in New York City and one is now in New Hampshire that just got placed in July.”

Other colleges accept puppies to be raised by students. But Unity College is the first in Maine, Marshall said: “It’s really nice for the students when they go look at the other college websites to see that this is happening successfully and working well [at Unity].”

This fall, sibling Labradors Mac and Malcolm arrived after spending parts of their summers with the undergraduates at their homes off campus.

But how Mac and Malcolm got to Unity was their own journey.

Guiding Eyes has a well-renowned breeding program: At their canine development center in Patterson, N.Y., their staff research genetics, screen dogs for health and temperament, and then send the dogs to their training school in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.

Raisers who apply attend classes, workshops and training sessions, both on and off campus. They also need to go through a pre-placement class. “It’s pretty structured, about eight to 10 hours with some online training components,” Marshall said.

“Part of the process is a home visit, or dorm visit,” she said. “The raisers pup-sit for a week at least, to see what it feels like to have a dog 24/7.

“The guidelines are obviously different than raising a family dog,” she said. “And there was a process the college had to go through to get complete approval.”

As Malcolm, who turned 8 months in October, rolled in the grass on a Unity College athletic field during a late-afternoon training session recently, Viveiros guided him gently with commands and treats. “It’s like puppy therapy every day,” Viveiros said. “I love having him around.”

But it’s not all puppy love. Raisers are responsible for feeding, caring for and raising the pup, going to various places – such as classrooms and residence halls — for socialization, spending time in training classes, and in some cases paying for expenses such as food out of pocket. Guiding Eyes training classes teach raisers the specific requirements of Guiding Eyes’s special training and enrichment program.

“I make sure his basic needs are met and he’s happy,” Viveiros said, counting off the challenges of raising a puppy while also trying to experience the normal life of a college senior. “You have to take other people’s environment into account. If there are people who are afraid of dogs or who have allergies, it can be a process of helping educate them or engaging in a dialogue with other people on campus who may not know what the dog is there for.”

IMG_6946

Nikki Viveiros ‘16, an Adventure Therapy major from Somerset, Mass., works with Malcolm, an 8-month-old Labrador retriever being trained as a guide dog for the visually impaired, on the campus of Unity College in Unity, Maine.

Viveiros conducts socialization training with Malcolm, “things like how to walk in a road so he’s not afraid of cars, how to greet people, (to) have him be able to sit for a while when I’m talking, to be able to sit on the side of the road where he can see and hear traffic but not feel like he’s in harm’s way.”

The idea is to create a relationship-based training session between the pup and the raiser, “a lifestyle approach,” Marshall said, “real-life rewards, toys, treats, games … so it’s a really positive life.”

Robinson and Male, who raise Mac – Malcolm’s brother – say acceptance of the dogs on campus has been enthusiastic and respectful.

“People here at Unity are so understanding and supportive of the program that I barely have to tell them anything at all,” Robinson said. “They know that if he’s wearing his vest, he’s almost definitely working. And even if he’s not wearing his vest, people always ask and are incredibly understanding whether I say that he’s working or that they can pet him and have a little play time.”

Robinson’s summer included taking nine credit-hours of classes plus holding down a part-time job. “Then I get a puppy. So it was hectic,” she said. “My boss was supportive and let me take him to work every day.”

The program is work, and comes with its own challenges.

“There’s a lot of time management involved,” Robinson said. “I have to put someone else’s needs before mine, and I have to live an active lifestyle to make sure the dog is getting its training, exercise and basic needs. A tired dog is a happy dog.

“If I can’t give him what he wants sometimes, like play or love, how can I expect him to do what I want him to do? So, you know you’ve done your best if the dog is at his best. So you’ve both fulfilled your purpose.”

Robinson said she came to the program not because she loves puppies – although she does.

“My uncle had a service dog. I’ve seen how much it improved his life,” she said. “So I wanted to help someone else, to be a part of something that can change someone’s life so much. It’s a good way to give back.”

For Male, training guide dogs comes from a lifetime of growing up around canines.

“I was born into a family that had a lot of Huskies, and I was always bringing home strays,” she said. “I look at this as a way for me to educate the general public about what service dogs do. It’s a lot of training from a lot of people from the day they are born.”

Graham Buck knows a little about bringing home stray animals. As a kid growing up on Long Island, the Guiding Eyes for the Blind assistant director of training once spent a few months volunteering at an animal shelter.

“I was obsessed with animals and the environment, always bringing baby birds home, when I was a kid,” he said. “But I didn’t know if I would be able to find a place to do that for school.”

Buck found Unity College, graduating in 1987 with a Wildlife Biology degree. Now, as assistant director of training at the facility in upstate New York, he works with blind or visually-impaired dog handlers and has been instrumental in training guide dogs with Guiding Eyes for the Blind for the last 27 years.

Buck oversees the dogs’ training as they near completion and prior to being placed, making sure they’re ready for placement.

“I didn’t know if I’d be able to find a place to study my interests,” he said. “I feel like Unity saved my life. I was drowning in a large high school, and kind of got lost in a sea of everything. … As soon as I walked on campus, I knew, ‘Wow, this looks like what I’m looking for.’ ”

At Unity, he learned “things don’t have to be done in a traditional way, education doesn’t have to be one size fits all.”

“My teachers always showed so much empathy toward students,” he said, “which is crucial because I like to be able to show empathy to clients, many of whom have multiple challenges.”

As dogs near completion of their training and are about to be placed, Buck is largely responsible for matching “suitable dogs to suitable people.”

There’s often a six- to 18-month waiting list for blind people to obtain dogs. Those seeking a guide dog need to fill out applications, be assessed and be evaluated so Guiding Eyes staff can find a proper match with a dog.

Buck helps assist the director of training with approximately 20 full-time trainers in New York, and has contact with as many as 175 of the 400 puppies in the breeding program every year.

A guide dog can work for nine years, and is retired as soon as he or she shows any health issues. Some retired guide dogs are then adopted, or are brought into therapeutic settings such as nursing or veterans’ homes or hospitals.

Buck said the goal in training the dog is positive reinforcement … “giving the dog the answer so the dog doesn’t see the process as drudgery.”

“You want repetition, exposure to a wide variety of environments, and for the dog to be heavily rewarded for recognizing targets, such as stairs, curbs, roads, doors and other obstacles a blind person might encounter.”

What Marshall, Buck, Viveiros, Male, Carroll, and Robinson share – beyond hands-on education in animal training and a connection to Unity College helping them find meaningful work in the field of animal care – is a bond with animals that reveals a deeper humanity and has increasing value in today’s world.

“You wind up loving this dog,” Marshall said. “You know in the back of your mind this dog is not yours, so you know from the get-go that you are going to be saying good-bye at some point. A bond that’s created between the raiser and the pup is really significant.

“It’s meaningful in the sense that now you’re giving an individual a very important amount of freedom when the dog becomes a guide dog. And the whole graduation is very exciting and moving,” Marshall said.

Unity also has four students who are sitters — Miranda Grato ‘16, Jeana Coppa ‘16, Mary Gorham ‘16, and Gary Proulx ’16 — who watch the dogs on campus while they are not being trained.

Buck, the Unity alum, says the program teaches about the nobility of animals in addition to the ideals of respect and giving back. When working with a blind or visually-impaired dog handler, “You’re making a connection with a person and fostering something they might not have experienced.

“It becomes a people job,” he said. “It really becomes about how good a teacher you can be, because you’re dealing with such a wide variety of people.”

“You’re also facilitating independence for people who have not had it,” Buck said. “These dogs are very, very important to the people who are receiving them. They’re almost like a person’s car. So, there’s a fair amount of excitement being able to provide this opportunity to students.”

And the students are changed, too.

“You don’t do normal ‘college kid things’ when you’re a puppy raiser,” Male said. “There’s more responsibility you have for this other creature. It’s like being a parent.”

And like most parents whose pups are in college, Male and Robinson are awfully proud of Mac.

“If you’ve done it right, you know you’ve done your best, and the dog is at his best, so you’ve both fulfilled your purpose,” Male said.

For Robinson, “It’s been great to be part of something that can change someone’s life so much.”

“It’s going to make graduating from Unity a lot harder,” she said, handing Mac a treat and commanding him to sit, “but I know he’s going to do such great things.”

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