If you see a cute little Black Labrador Retriever walking through campus, say hi to Simone. You may even be lucky enough to have her in some of your classes.
Simone is a 13-month-old puppy being trained by sophomore pre-veterinary major Caitlyn Landry to be a guide dog for the visually impaired. As Landry’s official title, “Puppy Raiser,” might suggest, her job is to expose and socialize Simone to everything and anything.
Landry became certified to raise puppies about a year ago through a nonprofit organization called Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Based out of New York, Guiding Eyes breeds and trains puppies to become guide dogs or autism service dogs.
“It’s definitely a lot of work on top of juggling a full class schedule and being a fulltime student,” Landry said.
Simone accompanies Landry to classes, all to the discretion of the professor.
“[Simone is] learning in lecture that’s a quiet environment where she needs to self-modulate and I’m not going to be necessarily giving her a command every five minutes, so she has to learn to settle down and be quiet and not be a disruption,” she said.
Simone is allowed in any of the academic buildings but she is not allowed in the dining hall or in any of the labs for safety and health reasons.
Puppy raisers make up an age bracket that ranges from 15 years old to seniors. Puppy raisers are matched with their puppies based on temperament and lifestyle. A more active, high-energy puppy would most likely be paired with someone like Landry who lives in a more rural area and who lives a more active lifestyle, out and about all day walking to and from classes.
The puppy raisers take puppies in when they are 8 weeks old. Once the puppies reach 16 to 18 months, they have their guide dog test – the In-For-Training (IFT) test. Simone’s IFT is scheduled for January 2015. If she passes this test, she will go on to her In-Harness Training with a new trainer. If being a guide dog does not seem like the best “career” for Simone, then she could be inducted into the Heeling Autism program, where she would be trained to be a 24-hour companion for a child with Autism. She could also become a breeder for Guiding Eyes or be adopted out to “other schools” to do police and detection work.
If a working career just is not in the cards for Simone, she could be adopted as a family pet. The puppy raisers have first dibs to adopt one of the dogs as their own. If they decide not to, then Guiding Eyes has a whole list of people looking to adopt dogs that have been released from the program.
Dogs who pass their training and become guide dogs are matched with their future owner, called a “graduate,” in the same way they are matched with their puppy raiser- it’s all based on lifestyle.
“That’s one of the things that makes Guiding Eyes for the Blind stand apart from other organizations,” says Landry, “they really match well with the graduates so that they have the best working guide dog team together.”
According to Landry, another thing that sets Guiding Eyes apart is that they provide the guide dogs free of cost to their graduates.
In order to become certified to raise puppies, Landry had to go through three certification classes with Guiding Eyes. Once she was assigned Simone, she had to attend weekly classes with her for the first three months and then bi-weekly classes for the duration of their time together. She says she learned basic skills and basic obedience commands but a lot of it is learning how to read the dog’s signs and body language across contexts.
“My regional manager from Guiding Eyes always says we’re novices teaching novices, so we kind of learn as they learn,” says Landry.
Once Landry becomes in tune with the dog’s signals, she can then apply those basic skills she learned in her training to make a given situation more successful; To work with Simone to re-engage her and build her confidence.
Landry says it takes a lot of patience to train these pups. She sets goals for each week, but said is important not to get frustrated if they are not met. She might go to the mall with the goal of going into one store but they might not even make it into the mall; Simone might be distracted by all of the people around her.
“You have to not force it because me taking her by the leash and dragging her just to get into the mall isn’t productive and that’s not effective in a positive learning situation, so it does take a lot of patience,” says Landry.
Landry says she leaves for class about 45 minutes to an hour early because each day is different.
“Even a walk to class is a training session… You just never know what you’re going to see when you’re out and about, you can’t control your environment,” she says.
It might take her 45 minutes to have a successful walk to class where Simone is not pulling or getting distracted but other days they might get to point B successfully in 10 minutes.
“They have their off days where they’re like, ‘I am just not in the mood today,’” Landry says. “They’re like little kids, they can have their defiant days.”
“You definitely get attached,” says Landry. “There’s a very strong bond there and [Simone] and I work together every day all day, she’s very in sync to me… Just like any dog you’re definitely attached but… going into I have a perspective of, ‘I’m doing this to help someone.’ It’s incredible that [Simone] has the capability to be able to make such an impact on someone who is visually impaired and for me, I consider it an honor to be able to be a part of that and to create such a great bond with her and… teach her the skills that she needs… to then go on and be successful and help someone and that’s why I do it… Those graduates are so grateful for the dogs.”
Landry says that along with teaching her responsibility, being a puppy raiser has taught her so much about herself.
“It has really put me into a completely different mindset. I am so much more self-aware and I have such a great appreciation for anyone who does anything like this,” she said. Â “I think it’s taught me too a little bit not to sweat the small stuff. Â It makes me feel grateful that I have my sight and that then, because I have my sight, I can use that kind of as a gift to someone else who doesn’t. Â It puts things in perspective for you. It’s so rewarding, I really wouldn’t trade it for the world. Â It has taught me to be more appreciative and have a better outlook in general.”
After she is finished raising Simone, Landry hopes to train another dog but it will depend on whether the university allows another dog to live on campus with her. After she graduates, she hopes to go on to veterinary school, get her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine.
For any student interested in getting involved, URI has a Puppy Raisers club called URI Puppy Raisers. The club is still in its early stages, it’s not student senate recognized, but they do have meetings about every 2 to 3 weeks. One of their goals is to raise $3,000 to “sponsor” a puppy from Guiding Eyes so that they can name it themselves and name it Rhody!
“We’re grateful that the school allows us to do this,” said Landry. “I think it’s great because this university is a lot about giving back and community service and doing things that are ‘bigger’ than yourself and this is a great way to do that.”
For updates, visit their Facebook page by searching URI Puppy Raisers. You can also email them at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow them on Instagram at uri_puppy_raisers. For more information about Guiding Eyes for the Blind, visit https://www.guidingeyes.org/.