Humans aren’t the only students on Hartwick College’s campus: a small pack of Labrador retrievers is also learning to sit, stay and assist as they prepare for careers as guide dogs for the visually impaired.
The Guiding Eyes Club at Hartwick has been on campus since 1998, providing around 400 alumni hands-on experience working with guide dog training, education and care.
This year, the club features 10 dogs and 30 students gaining experience, professional development and a deeper appreciation and understanding of the local community.
Pup-paired and prepared: Hartwick’s club is an offshoot of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a national organization focused in the Northeastern U.S. that raises and trains guide dogs.
To be eligible as a guide dog caretaker, students undergo extensive vetting, including a written application, mental health evaluation and interviews with Hartwick faculty members, says Serinah Palafox, student volunteer and president of the Guiding Eyes Club.
Once approved, the student is enrolled in a preplacement class and moves through six steps, including online courses, meetings, quizzes, in-person and hands-on activities, which all takes around six to seven hours to complete in total. Students also sign an agreement with Guiding Eyes for the Blind outlining responsibilities, policies and procedures.
After completing training, the student meets with a regional staff member from Guiding Eyes who evaluates the temperament and lifestyle of the student to match them with a dog.
Paws on the ground: Guiding Eyes typically trains Labrador retrievers and German shepherds, and most of Hartwick’s puppies have been yellow or black Labs. The dogs are tested at four and eight weeks old before being given to puppy raisers.
Raisers, or the primary caregiver for the dog, live on the first floor of their residence halls and are responsible for all elements of care, from feeding and grooming to providing medication, crate training and participating in classes and evaluations.
Dogs can accompany students into their classes and other campus locations so long as the dog is wearing their vest and students notify their professors.
Some students serve as sitters or dog walkers, which are less intense roles than the raisers, but provide similar experiential learning capacities for club members and support to the dogs.
The club also offers programming involving the greater campus community, including a Halloween costume party, destressing events and even a dog birthday party.
After being raised by Hartwick students, the dogs take a test to determine if they will become employed guide dogs. If they don’t pass the guide test, the dogs may become breeders for the company or work for a different company, like a detection or police dog group.
Fur-ever changed: Through the process, students build key skills such as time management, patience, communication, how to ask for help and self-confidence, Palafox says. “It teaches members how to engage and rely on a community that will remember them forever.”
Palafox will graduate this May and has raised three puppies during her time at Hartwick. Stitch, her current puppy, will leave Palafox in the fall to enter a more formal training program.
Administrators cite Guiding Eyes as an incentive for students to perform well and as an engagement strategy. “It gives them something to strive for, as there is a GPA requirement to be a sitter or raiser. It also helps them build a community of support, which in turn helps them continue as a successful student at Hartwick,” says Elise Donovan, student success coach and adviser for the Guiding Eyes Club.
Across campus, the Guiding Eyes dogs bring positivity and inspire connection to the Oneonta, N.Y., community.
“When a puppy-raising team is out in the community, it allows students to engage with community members and talk about all the benefits of raising these amazing superheroes,” says Palafox.
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