Guide dogs can be found walking anywhere on campus. While most of the dogs are preparing to serve as a lifelong companion for the blind or veteran, all of the dogs seen running around must undergo an intensive process.
The dogs serve the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind. The dogs are registered with the Disability Resource Center as guide dogs and are thus allowed to be on campus accompanying students wherever they go.
The dogs are sent to Athens from New York, eight to nine weeks after birth. The puppies are distributed to students registered with the program.
When the puppies come of age, people drive them down in vans down as far as North Carolina. To complete the journey, puppies are then brought to Athens. In the past, US Airways has also flown the puppies down to Atlanta for people to pick them up in the past.
When the dogs are older, they are sent back to the foundation to begin their official guide dog and service training.
The "puppy raisers", as they are called, are all volunteers. Although there is not an academic requirement to participate in the program, students do need the time to commit and the willingness to work with the puppy.
Volunteers attend meetings in order to learn how to handle the puppy, and are then matched with a puppy to raise for up to a year and a half. The volunteers pay for the dog’s food, while the foundation pays for their vet bills and additional costs.
The volunteers are not the ones who actually train the dogs for services, but raise them to socialize in public areas. The volunteer’s job is getting them used to all different types of people and public settings.
This socialization process involves taking the dogs to classes, stores, restaurants, some sports events and traveling on public transit. The "puppy raisers" also teach the puppies basic behavioral skills.
This training includes simple skills and house training, but it also includes different commands such as the “find it” command. This instructs the dogs to find anything that their owners command such as finding elevators or stairs.
“The dogs are given all the love and attention they need to become happy and confident dogs in the future," said Laurel Smith, the Athens pre-puppy area coordinator.
In raising the puppy, the volunteers are furthermore charged with seeing if the dog has the personality for the job. A good guide dog is focused and willing to work. Smith said that a guide dog needs to be “stable, happy and energized to work and never be afraid of anything that their blind handler needs them to take them through.”
The volunteers raise the puppy to be this way, but not every dog has the natural personality to do this kind of work. For example, a dog may be too hyper to have the focus of a guide dog. Finding this information is important, because for the dogs, the criteria for graduating the program is very rigorous.
The dogs who do not become guide dogs are released from the program or “career changed." There are a variety of reasons that this could happen, but these dogs can still go on to do other things. If it is a problem with the dog’s personality, they could be sent to training for another program.
For example, if a dog is too energetic and too excitable, they could work for another service dog program that uses dogs to help veterans or to be search dogs. There are plenty of other outlets for them to still be working dogs even if they cannot be guide dogs.
If the dogs have allergies or something that prevents them from working, their puppy raiser or another person from the foundation may be allowed to adopt them as a pet. The dogs may also be used as breeders.
All in all, according to Deana Izzo, a field representative for the foundation, about 70 percent of the dogs graduate the program while another 10 percent of the dogs are career changed to another service program.
For any volunteer, the hardest thing to do is actually giving up the dog when the training period is over. Knowing that it is going to happen going into it does not ease the parting blow. Over the course of the program, bonds form between the volunteer and the dog.
These bonds make it all the more painful to let go. However, moving on is what is best for the dogs. It is the only way that they will be able to move on in their careers to become guide dogs and help people in need.
Despite the pain however, Smith, a former puppy raiser herself, feels the experience is worthwhile.
"It is incredible to see everything that they [the dogs] can become and the independence that they can provide for a blind man or woman or a veteran," Smith said. "Everyone in their lives should do something that someone else can never thank you for because that’s when you do something good.