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Thursday, May 18, 2017

Summa Cum Woof

Service dogs to graduate alongside their trainers
URI senior Caitlyn Landry and Navy, a black lab she has trained
for a year to become a guide dog, prepare for graduation.
(Photo by Nora Lewis)
It’s commencement season at the University of Rhode Island, but not only for URI’s 4,122 graduating students. Two dogs will walk in the procession and prepare for their future careers as well.

For the last two years, student members of the URI Puppy Raisers Club have raised and trained dogs to be service animals for the blind. This year, the club’s two founding leaders, Caitlyn Landry of Vernon, Conn., and Kaitlin Kohut of Holbrook, N.Y., are graduating at the same time as their black Labrador retrievers Navy and Marcus are completing their training and preparing to be placed with individuals who are blind.

“I’ve had Navy since last May when he was 8 weeks old, and he’s very lovable, a good listener and really willing to work,” said Landry. 

“He was the only puppy in his litter, which is kind of unusual. But he’s a real sweetheart.”

Navy, Marcus and two other dogs being raised by club members were trained to be comfortable in all kinds of settings and situations and to be responsive to their master regardless of whatever distractions the animals may face. 

The dogs attended their student handlers’ academic classes and were popular with the many other students they saw around campus.

“Everybody loves seeing the dogs on campus and having them in their classes,” Landry said. “It gives the students and faculty some stress relief. We’ve also done some education around campus so everyone is more aware of how to approach a service dog in training.”

Last year, Landry did such a good job training a yellow Lab named Katie that the dog was selected to be a breeder for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, the New York-based non-profit group that taught the URI students how to train the animals. Katie is due to deliver her first litter of puppies next month.

“I’m really proud of the job I did with Katie,” said Landry, an animal science and pre-veterinary medicine major. “She was the first dog I raised from puppy to adult, and she was evaluated as an exceptionally good dog with a good work ethic and good genetics. I hope Navy does just as well.”

In preparation for URI’s commencement ceremony, Landry and Kohut are teaching Navy and Marcus additional socialization skills so the dogs will walk calmly and sit quietly next to each other amid the pomp and circumstance.

“We’ve been working on getting them used to clapping and loud noises,” Landry said. “Unless they’ve been in that kind of environment before, they won’t be used to clapping on such a large scale. So we’re playing YouTube videos of large audiences clapping to get them acclimated.”

The students are even making mortar boards for the dogs that match the caps and gowns that Landry and Kohut will be wearing.

Upon graduation, Landry will move to Patterson, N.Y., where she has been offered a full-time job working at Guiding Eyes for the Blind as a technician in the organization’s breeding kennel and cryogenics lab. 

Kohut, a wildlife and conservation biology major, is seeking a job as a biologist. Both expect to continue raising guide dogs once they get established in their future locations.

“I’m still thinking about vet school, but I’m going to take some time off school and save some money,” Landry said. “For now, Guiding Eyes for the Blind is exactly where I want to be.”