When Kelsey Upton saw Anne graduate as a guide dog in New York, she knew she had chosen to participate in the right program.
“I just remember walking out and saying ‘OK, I’m doing this again,” said Upton, a first year grad student majoring in non-profit organizations from Covington.
Today, Upton is a puppy trainer for the fourth time for the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind. Her dog, Gemma, is a black Labrador who has been learning her way around Athens since she was 10-weeks-old.
Similar to all other service dogs-in-training seen on campus at the University of Georgia, Gemma was born in New York before traveling to UGA to be matched with her puppy raiser. In New York, Gemma grew to be about seven-weeks-old before she began her journey to Athens. During her travel time, group leaders finalized the applicant she would be matched with for training.
Upton received Gemma in January and is planning to raise her throughout the year.
“Being a puppy raiser is definitely not for everyone but when you love it so much, it makes it so much easier and so worthwhile,” Upton said.
Upton will train Gemma in Athens for approximately one year before she goes off to the Foundation’s home campus in Smithtown, New York for further training. Eventually, Gemma will become a guide dog for the visually impaired or a service dog for a disabled veteran.
While in Athens, Upton is responsible for training Gemma to learn basic commands and familiarize her with as many different environments as possible.
“We really want to make sure the dogs learn not to be fearful of anything and that their confident in every situation,” Upton said.
Eric Jorgensen, a junior finance major from Sugar Hill, is also involved with the Guide Dog Foundation and has been raising Astrid since January. He said although there is still a bit of time before Astrid will leave for New York, he knows the time will go fast.
“I’ve heard it’s going to be really difficult giving her up but I’m just not focusing on that right now,” Jorgensen said.
Once Astrid and Gemma have completed their time in training with UGA students, they will spend two to five months at the organization’s New York campus. During this time, the dogs are taught through positive reinforcement to lead a person in a straight line, stop at changes in elevation and curbs and maneuver around obstacles. Once this part of the training has been mastered, they will then be paired with their handler.
The handler, referred to as the student at this point by the organization, will then participate in a two-week course to learn how to work with their guide dog in a way that will be the most practical and beneficial.
Field Representative Deana Izzo said it is during this part of training the dog must become accustomed to the environment and walking pace the student requires. The dog will also learn to navigate any transportation methods the student regularly relies on as well.
The students involved in this program are often residents of the United States, Canada and Mexico. According to the Foundation’s website, however, some other students have come from Brazil, Israel and El Salvador.
Once the two-week course has been completed, the student and his dog will officially graduate the program and begin their day-to-day life together.
However, in the event that the dog is unable to graduate the program, one of two options will take place.
“Not every dog is suitable to be a service dog,” Upton said. “Whether it’s because of medical reasons or potential fears, the dog will then be released from the program.”
The released dog is then sometimes donated to another organization that could use them. Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and MSA Security are the two most popular organizations some high-energy dogs who do not graduate will be sent to next.
If the dogs are sent to either of these organizations, they could end up anywhere within the continental United States. ATF trains canines to find explosives and firearm-related evidence before assigning them to local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. Similarly, MSA Security trains the dogs in their Explosive Detection Canine program so they are able to recognize the explosives.
The dogs working with MSA Security go to work just like anyone else, returning home with their handlers after their shift is over.
Dogs who do not qualify for those organizations are instead offered to their puppy raisers as a pet. According to Upton, most of the times when the dog is offered back to the puppy raiser, the puppy raiser will choose to adopt the dog.
“We have approximately 60% to 70% success rate with our program,” Izzo said. “Depending on why the dog is released from our program depends on what happens next.”
Of the three dogs Upton has finished training, she said one of them did not pass the training and therefore did not graduate.
“I think she just got nervous and got really stressed out,” Upton said. “I’ll be adopting her this week.”
For the dogs who aren’t returning to their trainers and are continuing on as service or guide dogs, their careers start the moment they graduate. The dogs will work alongside their assigned handler every day, assisting them to ensure a better quality of life.
The dogs will work with their handlers for a decade before they retire. When they do retire, the dogs are first offered to the handler as a pet.
In a situation where the handler is unable to care for the dog as a pet, the dog is then offered to the puppy raisers. If the puppy raiser is unwilling or unable to adopt the dog as a pet, then the dog is then offered to one of the many people on the waiting list to adopt a retired guide dog.
Though Gemma and Astrid are both young and new to the program now, a future as guide dogs for the visually impaired hopefully awaits them.
“To me, the entire experience has just been so worthwhile,” Upton said. “It sucks to give them up but it’s awesome to see the impact these dogs can have on people’s lives.”