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Wednesday, November 21, 2018

URI Puppy Raisers club trains future guide dogs

That's a good doggy
The URI Puppy Raisers' guide dogs in training pose outside the URI Welcome Center.(URI photo/Nora Lewis)
Meet Moses, Angus, Sadie, Levi and Etta, five of the friskiest and hardest-working members of the University of Rhode Island community. 

All are canine trainees in the URI Puppy Raisers Club, a student organization that raises Labrador retrievers to be trained as guide dogs for the New York-based nonprofit, Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

At a recent club meeting, pups ages 4 to 7 months were lying at the feet of their student raisers. One chewed a toy, another whined, and the other two thumped their tails as new people approached. 

Later, puppies rotated through specific skill stations, such as keeping a loose leash as they walked by a peanut butter-laden plate. 

Angus showed great maturity as he strode by, ignoring temptation and receiving a hearty “good boy” and a treat.

The puppies were impossibly cute, with soft coats, oversized paws and large brown eyes that begged attention. Even seasoned club members couldn’t help uttering soft “awwws.”

But despite the warm fuzzies, raising puppies to become guide dogs for the visually impaired is serious business. “It’s 24/7 if you’re raising a puppy because you have the dog with you all the time,” says club president Becky Provensal of Cumberland, a senior animal and veterinary sciences major.

Provensal is now raising Levi, a 7-month-old yellow Lab, and her third dog. She joined the club as a first-year student and progressed through the club’s rigorous demands for selection as a puppy raiser. 

“You don’t get a dog at the first meeting,” she says, dispelling a notion that some new members have.

URI’s club has raised 13 dogs since two students founded the group in 2014 and is currently raising five puppies. Members now number about 60, of which only two are men. Just a few members raise puppies at any given time. 

The rest are certified dog sitters or help with club operations and fundraising. URI allows the club to raise up to seven puppies at any given time.

The students socialize the puppies and acclimate them in a variety of settings for 16-18 months, when the dogs are returned to Guiding Eyes for six months or more of specialized skills training.

To qualify as a puppy raiser, students must live off campus — small dorm rooms are less than ideal for active puppies — maintain at least a 3.0 GPA, complete a free, six-hour certification on campus and be an active club member. 

Attendance is taken at weekly meetings; members must take part in outings on campus or in public settings with the puppies; help with fundraisers and log several hours as certified dog sitters.

Allison Doyle of Rensselaer, NY,  a junior med-lab sciences major and the club’s primary sitter, was keeping Moses company. He is the youngest of the URI pack. “I was a pretty active sitter my first two years, which really helps you build up to raising,” she says.

“Campus is the best place for these dogs to be raised,” says Provensal, noting that the dogs are allowed in all campus buildings and classes except laboratories with the permission of the professor. “They have so many different experiences.”

Gerald Brenninkmeyer, director of Canine Development at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, would agree. 

“Guiding Eyes for the Blind’s unique puppy raising clubs on college campuses provide an ideal learning and growing environment, allowing both the student and puppy to gain valuable experiences which will prepare them for their lives ahead,” he says.

Guiding Eyes keeps puppy raisers updated on their dog’s progress, invites them to the dog’s graduation and gives the eventual owner the option to keep in touch with the students. Still, giving up the dogs they have loved and labored over is difficult, Provensal admits.

“Honestly, it’s really painful. I cried for weeks the first time. Once I heard how he was doing and knew he was happy, it made me happy. It’s very rewarding and so fulfilling to see them doing what they are meant to do,” says Provensal, who remains committed to puppy raising.  She hopes to explore related career options after she graduates next year.