RC students to foster puppies for Leader Dogs for the Blind

By: Mary Beth Almond | Rochester Post | Published May 31, 2017

  In April, Rochester College student Joshua Allen became the program’s first recipient of a puppy, which he named Logan.

In April, Rochester College student Joshua Allen became the program’s first recipient of a puppy, which he named Logan.

Photo provided by Rochester College

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ROCHESTER — Those who frequent Rochester College will notice some new four-legged students on campus this fall.

Leader Dogs for the Blind and Rochester College recently launched the RC-Campus Puppy program, a new initiative that allows students to raise puppies that will become guide dogs through Leader Dogs’ training program.

Jaymes Vettraino, the college’s director of the Center for Social Entrepreneurship, said he came up with the idea last year after hearing about the Leader Dogs Prison Puppies program — where a single inmate or a team of inmates raise and train puppies for about a year.

Leader Dogs officials said as many as 60 percent of future Leader Dogs raised in correctional facilities go on to become Leader Dogs, compared to only about 45 percent of dogs outside of the Prison Puppies program — a statistic that got Vettraino thinking.

“It’s not the prison confines that helps the training go well — it’s the reinforcement from multiple people in one area training the puppies,” he said. “From that perspective, I thought the dorms are very similar.”

Leader Dogs for the Blind Puppy Development Supervisor Deb Donnelly said Rochester College is a nice fit for the new program.

“Leader Dogs has been looking to engage people at a younger age in our mission and being able to help us reach our goal of providing independent travel for the blind and visually impaired,” she said. “And Rochester College is just right up the road, so their students could literally walk here if need be.”

A total of 12 Rochester College students from a variety of academic majors were selected to pilot the RC-Campus Puppies program. Of the 12, six were named puppy raisers and tasked with spending between 12 and 15 months caring for a puppy, teaching basic obedience and house manners, and socializing them in the community. The other six were selected to provide support as puppy sitters. Rochester College junior Joshua Allen received the program’s first puppy, which he named Logan, April 28. College officials said five more student-puppy pairings will be made over the next two months.

Under the RC-Campus Puppies program, a limited number of puppies will be distributed to select students at the end of each academic year. Puppy raisers will kick off their assignment by bringing their dogs home to off-campus residences for the summer.

“We are taking the most burdensome part of the puppy raising stage, and we are putting it on the student to get acclimated to while they are not taking a full load of classes, so they have the summer months to get all of that aside, and then they come back to school,” Vettraino explained.

When the students return to campus in the fall, all of the puppy raisers and sitters and their dogs will reunite and live together in the same dorm, Barbeir Hall — which college officials have designated the RC-Campus Puppy Living and Learning Community. The dorm will also house puppy supporters — students who support the program but have not yet been selected as a puppy raiser or sitter.

“Our goal is that as the program develops, you are first a sitter, then you are a raiser, and if you are really interested in the program and we couldn’t get you in, you are a puppy supporter and you choose to live in the dorm to stay in the program and hopefully put an application in in the future,” Vettraino said.

When the puppies are 12-15 months old, they will be returned to Leader Dogs for assessment. Those who are chosen to move forward will undergo four months of formal harness training with a professional guide dog mobility instructor. The dogs who graduate from training are then assigned to visually impaired clients, free of charge.

Approximately 370 puppy raisers volunteer with Leader Dogs each year, but due to medical, temperament or work-related issues, Donnelly said, not all dogs make it as Leader Dogs.

“There is about a 50 percent chance of making it as a guide dog. … They could be career changed at any time through the process, up to and after being matched with a client.”

Some dogs who do not become guide dogs are “career changed” and are adopted by other agencies to work as service, custom or rescue dogs. If a dog isn’t selected to begin a different career, Donnelly said, puppy raisers will be given the opportunity to adopt the dog as a pet.

Leader Dogs for the Blind is located at 1039 S. Rochester Road in Rochester Hills. For more information, to donate or to become a volunteer puppy raiser, call Leader Dogs at (248) 651-9011 or email leaderdog@leaderdog.org.

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