The sight of a canine frolicking on the Auburn campus is nothing unusual. After all, students have pets. Several programs throughout campus work with detector dogs, and then, of course, there is Moose, the university’s therapy dog.
But some of those frolicking dogs are “foster care” puppies being raised and socialized by Auburn students with a greater purpose in mind. For students like Jennifer Lyons, head coordinator of the Guide Dog Foundation “puppy raisers” of Auburn, the puppies they love and nurture represent the potential to impact lives in profound ways as service or guide dogs.
“A lot of people ask why I do it because I’m going to have to give the puppies up,” says Lyons, a student in the College of Veterinary Medicine. “But it’s great to know that I can help someone out.”
In 1946, following World War II, five community leaders founded a guide dog school in metropolitan New York to provide guide dogs at no charge for blind or visually impaired students, especially veterans who had returned from the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific.
After their 14-16-month bonding time with their “raisers,” the dogs move on to the next phase of training in Smithstown, N.Y., where the Guide Dog Foundation facility is located.
Lyons is currently raising her third puppy, a 3-month-old Labrador Retriever mix named Sylvia. She took over for Auburn DVM candidate and prior head coordinator of the “puppy raisers,” Samantha Warner. It was Warner who first interviewed Lyons during the application process to see if she was a good fit for the puppy-raising program.
This isn’t Lyons’ first stint at being a foster parent, so to speak. She previously raised a puppy for Wildcat Service Dog Foundation during her undergrad years at the University of Kentucky.
There are a set of requirements that go along with the job of puppy-raiser. “We go over how much time you’ll have to spend with the dog and what’s expected of you,” says Lyons. “We have a puppy manual to read through that goes into detail with training. It also gives advice for people who have never trained or raised a dog before.”
Warner says the training falls into three tiers: house manners (no begging or jumping on furniture), basic obedience (sit, stay, come) and socialization (confidence in public settings).
During the socialization training period, one of the most important things for the raiser is to encourage the public to never pet a working dog without permission—not always an easy task because, well, people love puppies.
“Until they are 9 months old, they are allowed to be petted by the public,” says Lyons. “They just need to be sitting or lying down. They need to get used to different types of people. After 9 months we start weaning them off. Depending on the time, we will have to say no to people who want to pet them and say we are working. It gets a lot more serious.”
With the vet school being so familiar with these four-legged classmates, Warner says students at lectures are good at policing those who are unaware that the dogs shouldn’t be petted.
As the head coordinator for the Auburn volunteer group, Lyons interviews volunteer applicants, maintains contact with Guide Dog Foundation trainers and holds meetings for the group at a different location every month in order to expose the dogs to new environments.
Serena, the second dog Lyons raised, is now in guide-dog training in Smithstown. “I’m hoping I’ll be able to go see her graduation,” she says. “I miss her, but it will be great to see her matched with someone that she will be helping for life.”
Not all dogs are cut out to be guide dogs, in which case they are sent to the GDF sister organization, America’s VetDogs, a program that trains service dogs for veterans or first responders with disabilities.
Other dogs might be put up for adoption as pets.
“The first dog I trained had some sensitivity issues,” Lyons says. “She was released and I decided to adopt her.”
Warner says whenever a student notices a puppy is encountering an illness, they will call her first and she will direct them from there. “These dogs’ temperaments are different than your typical pet; they can be much calmer than your average dog.”
Lyons takes Sylvia everywhere with her. “The only times she isn’t with me is when she’s in her crate during one of my labs or when I’m sleeping.”
“I miss her but it will be great to see her matched with someone that she will be helping for life.”
However, there come certain times Lyons and the other raisers have to leave town without the puppies. This presents an opportunity for undergrad students to volunteer with a “puppy camp” for the dogs.
Reagan Kaniut ’18, a sophomore in rehabilitation and disability studies, has been involved with the program since last summer and has a dog stay with her once a week or month.
“I want to train one of them so badly, but I’m going to wait until after school,” Kaniut says. “It’s great that you can incorporate them into your daily life.”
Lyons will be visiting Kaniut’s home for her interview. The camp volunteers go through the same application process as the puppy raisers.
After Sylvia’s 14-16 months with Lyons and the occasional puppy camp, it will be her turn to see if she is fit to be a guide dog. And like any proud parent, Lyons hopes to visit her graduation as well.
Since the puppy raisers program is so new in Auburn, there still aren’t any Guide Dog Foundation graduates assisting the blind on the Plains.
However, there are dogs from programs like “Leader Dogs for the Blind” providing guidance and friendship to Auburn students in need.
Sophomore in music education and performance Tripp Gulledge ’18 (right), who is blind, has been with Dakota, a yellow Labrador Retriever mix, since June 2015. Together, they have been getting more and more comfortable with the curvy sidewalks around the Auburn campus.
Gulledge speaks of his first time experiencing the world with Dakota as “pretty crazy.” When he navigated life with the use of a cane, Gulledge only had to focus on what he noticed around him. Now, Gulledge has to think about Dakota when it comes to the orientation of their environment.
“There’s a trust between Dakota and me,” Gulledge says. “I can’t assume he’s wrong when he does something I don’t want him to do. But sometimes he might turn one sidewalk too early, so I have to realize and rectify that.”
Gulledge loves having conversations with people about how these guide dogs work and the training
they experience. The education he provides the public on guide dogs and their rights comes from a grateful perspective. Guide dogs live a life full of work, hard work. Many times, just like students, they have no idea what they are going to do after school is over.
But they know they are going to benefit society one way or another.