Dawgs with dogs

UGA students raise guide dogs in training

Dawgs with dogs


It’s a Sunday evening in November, and two dogs are playing in a parking lot. Fey is a 9-month-old black Labrador retriever, and Yukon is a 9-month-old yellow Lab.

“Fey domination! Go Fey go!” says senior Sonja Price, who’s holding Fey’s leash.

“Yukon’s like, ‘I’m about to get this,’” replies junior Ashleigh McCollum, who has his leash.

Playtime finished, they walk toward downtown Athens with Sarah Hooper (BSA ’10) and Mica, a 2-month-old collie.

“Find the stairs,” Price says to Fey. “Good girl. Sit. Good girl.”

“Yukon. Yukon, find the stairs,” McCollum says. After several tries Yukon approaches the stairs, where he sits and waits.

“Find the stairs” is an unusual command, but Yukon is not the average dog—he’s a guide dog in training. So are Fey and Mica. The dogs are spending the first year of their lives in Athens, then they’ll head to New York and the Guide Dog Foundation, where they’ll undergo intensive training before being placed with a visually impaired person. Yukon, Fey and Mica are special, but not uncommon in Athens. There are roughly 85 guide dogs in training in the area, and the majority of the more than 100 trainers—known as puppy walkers—are UGA students.

On a Sunday afternoon in January, Sarah Hooper answers her cell.

“Did we get it sorted out?” Hooper asks calmly. “Within the hour we need to get charcoal in the dog.”

A dozen dogs and puppy walkers wait patiently in the lobby of UGA’s Tate Student Center. Satisfied that the dog—who ate extra strength Sudafed—is getting the proper care, Hooper encourages the group to act quickly if a dog eats something inappropriate.

“Time is our big enemy,” says Hooper, a student at UGA’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

Hooper is the area coordinator—the leader—of this group. She’s well qualified; she raised her first guide dog at 16. Mica is her 9th dog, so she has a wealth of experience to draw on.

“Alex, do you want to take Mica?” Hooper asks.

Junior Alex Sigmund, an applicant to become a puppy walker, works with Yukon at a meeting in January.

Junior Alex Sigmund is one of the latest applicants to become a puppy walker at UGA, a group that started after Hooper enrolled. By the time she was raising her third dog, she was working with the Guide Dog Foundation and Deana Izzo, GDF’s Athens-based Southern field representative. The two wanted to expand, so Hooper began advertising. In five years, the group has grown to include more than 100. They are the largest group with GDF and the only one focused around a college campus.

“The greatest form of advertising is to carry a puppy around the campus,” Izzo says. “The more puppies we had on campus, the more they were seen, the more applications we got.”

Sophomore Alison Bridges stands outside Chuck E. Cheese with Izzy, a 6-month-old collie, on another Sunday in January. Hooper’s puppy walkers are taking turns walking their dogs through the restaurant—a test of the dogs’ ability to function despite loud noises, bright lights and overstimulated kids—but they’ve decided Izzy is not ready.

“That’ll be our Everest,” Bridges says.

Puppy walkers are constantly working to expose their dogs to new people, places and situations without overwhelming them. Although the dogs will receive extensive training at GDF, their first year of life strongly influences their success. Expose a dog to too much, and it may develop a phobia that prevents it from being an effective working dog. Expose a dog to too little, and it may not function well in the variety of environments and situations needed.

“Our puppy walkers can make or break a working dog,” Izzo says.

The life of a student is perfect for guide dog training. The puppies are exposed to a large number of people and places on a daily basis—the kind of exposure that would take a month in a non-student household. The dogs are constantly reacting to new stimuli, and each exposure is an opportunity for training.

“Since the dog accompanies you, you’re working on it constantly,” Hooper says. “So you’re doing it as you’re doing your daily activities.”

Senior Kristen Wilson vividly remembers when her first dog, Tibby, threw up—a lot—during class.

“I was mortified,” she says.

Wilson is now raising her third dog, Jinx, and she’s accustomed to dealing with accidents. But she’s sensitive to how her dog’s presence might affect others.

“Some people get distracted by the slightest jingle on their collar, so we have to be mindful that this is a campus where there are other students paying the same amount of money that we’re paying to go to class and take tests and learn,” Wilson says.

Puppy walkers need to be prepared for any eventuality, so they tend to carry an assortment of items: toys, poop bags, paper towels, Chlorox wipes, carpet wipes and hand sanitizer. Occasionally, they’re caught unprepared.

“Can everybody show me a bag?” Hooper asks during the January meeting at Tate.

Roughly half of the puppy walkers can’t, and Hooper emphasizes the importance of maintaining a good public image. Although guide dogs in training are protected by a Georgia law allowing them access to public places, she wants to make sure access is given willingly, not grudgingly.

The same applies to the UGA campus, where administrators have adopted a policy that complies with existing laws but outlines a few limits. The dogs can go in classrooms and residence halls, but not other places like food preparation areas and research labs. The puppy walkers must clean up after the animals and remove them from campus if they become unruly.

On UGA’s large campus, it can be difficult to distinguish between a guide dog in training and someone’s pet. Guide dogs in training can be identified by their yellow coat with the Guide Dog Foundation logo; a GDF identification tag on the collar; an ear tattoo of their GDF ID number; and the puppy walker’s ID card that includes their name, the dog’s name and a GDF signature.

Judy Presley has retinitis pigmentosa. She began losing her vision during childhood, and by 1992 she was blind and frustrated with trying to manage using a cane. Four years later an encounter with a guide dog user changed her life. Presley now works with Katie, a 5-year-old Labrador/golden retriever.

“When I get ready to go to the grocery store here in Helen, I just put on her harness and off we go,” she says. “I don’t have to ask somebody to take me, I don’t have to ask somebody to let me hold their arm—it’s just me and my dog. It’s just exhilarating, that freedom and independence.”

Puppy walkers practice crossing the street in downtown Athens during a monthly meeting.

Puppy walkers—who are volunteers—usually have little contact with guide dog users before they join the program. Meeting one can have a significant impact.

“It made me realize how much independence these dogs were giving,” Wilson says. “It got me to see what my dog was going to become one day and what she was going to do. So it made giving them up a little bit easier.”

There are a variety of reasons why puppy walkers get involved, but realizing that they’re helping someone keeps them involved, Hooper says.

“I would say probably 85 percent, 90 percent are doing it because they want to help somebody.”

Visit http://www.photo.alumni.uga.edu/multimedia/guidedogs for a multimedia presentation on guide dogs in training at UGA.

Guide Dog Foundation http://www.guidedog.org