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Dawgs raising dogs

  |   Kristen B. Morales   |   Permalink   |   Spotlight

Vicki has learned to be patient during classes, but so far she's gotten out of long exams.

But it's OK if others cut Vicki some slack. She's only 10 months old. But this fall, if her work on campus stays on track, she'll go back to her home in New York to learn to be a full-fledged service dog.

Vicki is one of around 120 puppies—mainly Labradors and golden retrievers, but also some other breeds—that get formative training with students at the University of Georgia. Raised by an army of volunteers, many of whom sign up even if they can only watch a dog for a few hours or overnight, the dogs learn basic obedience and get exposed to an array of life situations. When they're around 16 to 18 months old, they begin full training with Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind in Smithtown, New York.

The inevitable departure is bittersweet for Vicki's raiser, Jana Burchette, a third-year exercise and sport science major. Burchette said she was interested in the program her freshman year, and after doing more research on what was required, she felt inspired by the work the dogs would go on to do.

"Letting her go is going to be really hard; she's like a child," Burchette said. "But I want her to do something good for somebody. I want her to be a guide dog."

UGA is home to the largest group of puppy raisers for the Guide Dog Foundation. The organization mainly has families up and down the East Coast raising puppies, and another group of students at Georgia Southern, but they pale in comparison to the 200 to 250 students who volunteer their time to be a puppy raiser.

The connection began about eight or nine years ago with just one student on campus, said Deana Izzo, the Georgia field representative for the foundation. After a few years, the idea took off. Today, Izzo said most of the puppy raisers are students in veterinary science programs, but students from across all colleges take part.

Working with students has also introduced some new protocols for puppy raising, both with the foundation and with UGA. For example, while the timeframe of raising a puppy meshes well with the time a student spends on campus—students know they will have a dog for a set period of time, but not beyond graduation—it raised the issue of allowing pets in dorms (future guide dogs are allowed) and what to do when you have a long exam or plan to study abroad ("buddies" and "campers" are fellow students who will watch the puppy in the interim).

"When we brought this program on campus, one of the first problems we ran into was an exam. The raiser would call and say, 'I have a five-hour exam and the puppy is too young (to sit for it),'" said Izzo. "So we took a look at the situation here and said, we need buddies. Buddies are people who want to do the program but really don't have the time; they can sign up when someone is taking an exam. Campers are people in the same boat, but maybe their time is more flexible, so if we have someone who is going on vacation, they can step up and volunteer for a camp."

If a student needs some time to study without a puppy, Izzo said, there are dozens of students willing to step in and help.

But just because a student doesn't have a dog doesn't mean they have fewer responsibilities. To be in the foundation's program, students—with and without dogs— must attend regular obedience sessions, where they go over basic training and address any issues. Students who volunteer to be campers must also be willing to host a puppy at least twice a month. Izzo said there is a general sense among the volunteers that you have to give help to get help.

"It's not an easy program. If you were to apply, from application to the day you get your puppy, it's going to take three months," she said. "We want to make sure that they are as prepared as we can make them for the commitment that they think they want to do."

Brianna Goodman, a recent agricultural engineering graduate who now lives in Athens, said she got her first puppy at 2 1/2 months old, and he left for training at 19 months. Leaving was difficult, she said, but she had the chance to meet the dog's new handler, and the experience cemented the importance of raising the dogs.

"It was the best worst thing I ever did," she said of letting the dog go back to New York. "But you could tell he loved what he did. His handler now, this is his 11th dog, and he says it's his best one yet."

Madison Fellows, a first-year animal health student from Hiram, is starting the training to get her first puppy. She's already dreading the day the dog will leave, but she also says the experience will help her later in life.

"It's a really good way to have a dog on campus, but it's still a huge responsibility," she said. "I'm going to be a vet, so it's going to be good for me first to know how to not get too attached to an animal."

Raising a puppy, Izzo added, can also give students a great sense of accomplishment.

"This is really the first thing they're doing without mom and dad, and I think that makes much more of an impact," she said. "And the way that the community rallies around people who raise puppies, even if you're not a dog lover, it's still impressive. They're still going to stop and say, 'That's really cool.'"

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