PRoUD students discuss their work training puppies for The Seeing Eye.

Raising miracles

Student organization Puppy Raisers of UD supports Seeing Eye

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11:08 a.m., Oct. 12, 2012--Dressed in a pink collar and dark-green vest, floppy-eared Agnes is the kind of puppy that makes just about everyone she passes on the University of Delaware campus want to stop and pet her. But although she is only three months old, the yellow Labrador retriever is expected to keep moving in spite of these distractions.

If all goes well, Agnes will have an important job to do by the time she’s about two years old and trained to become a Seeing Eye dog. For now, Alison Sobeck, a senior health studies major, has the equally important job of teaching Agnes basic commands and providing her with opportunities for exposure and socialization.

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Sobeck is raising one of eight puppies currently in residence on the UD campus through PRoUD (Puppy Raisers of UD). The club has about 40 active members, with three categories of involvement — puppy raisers, secondary puppy raisers, and puppy sitters.

“We want people to understand that puppy raising and sitting are major responsibilities,” Sobeck says. “PRoUD is about much more than playing with a cute puppy for awhile and then walking away. It’s a 24/7 job, and we’re fully responsible for feeding these animals, housebreaking them, and teaching them basic obedience so they’re ready to be trained as guide dogs when they’re 14 to 16 months old.”

A key part of the early training for the puppies involves exposing them to a variety of social situations, similar to what they will encounter as working dogs. So, like the other puppy raisers in PRoUD, Sobeck takes Agnes everywhere, from the classroom to the coffee shop. She explains that although working Seeing Eye dogs are allowed access to all public places, Seeing Eye puppies are not.

“We check with managers or owners of business to make sure it’s OK to bring our puppies in,” she says. “On campus, they’re allowed in most University buildings, on buses, and at sporting events. They’re also allowed in class, but we always speak with our professors first to gain permission.”

Lauren Christie, a senior majoring in agriculture and natural resources, is raising Gia, a seven-month-old German shepherd.  Christie brings lots of experience to her job as PRoUD president — Gia is her eighth Seeing Eye puppy. Her affiliation with the program began through the Montgomery County 4-H when she was just 11 years old.

Christie is frequently asked how she is able, over and over again, to raise the puppies and then give them up.

“It’s never easy to say good-bye to these amazing dogs, as they become such an important part of my life,” she says. “Each of the dogs I’ve raised carries a little piece of my heart with them, and not a day goes by that I don’t think of them. Even though I miss them all, I wouldn’t trade the experience of puppy raising for the world. I get to share an amazing bond with a stranger through the love of the puppy I raised. To know the incredible difference these dogs make, and that I help make it possible, is something I am most proud of.”

Puppy sitter Andrew DeAscanis, a junior majoring in criminal justice, says that the experience has changed his life. “The connection I have with the dogs not only makes me feel better as a person because of what the result will be when dog finishes his or her training with us, but it also gives me the understanding of dogs in a different sense other than being a pet. I look forward to continue to puppy raise even after I graduate.”

As for Agnes? Yes, she’s adorable, but Sobeck emphasizes that she needs to be focused if she’s going to be an effective Seeing Eye dog.

Sobeck urges people not to call out to any of the puppies, make noises, or try to pet them. “Those things can lead to distraction issues, which for a working dog can lead to life-or-death situations if the dog isn’t focused on its work,” she says. “But if you ask us if you can pet the pup, we’ll usually be more than happy to let you do so as long as it’s an appropriate time.”

For those who would like a chance to interact with the puppies, PRoUD is hosting a puppy play date outside the Trabant University Center on Tuesday, Oct. 16, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. 

“For any type of donation,” Sobeck says, “people will be able to go into our puppy pen and spend some time playing with our younger puppies. All of the money raised will go directly to The Seeing Eye to support the organization we all love so much.”

About PRoUD

PRoUD is an organization of students raising puppies for The Seeing Eye, while promoting awareness. Members of the club consist of puppy raisers and non-puppy raisers. The members work together to encourage the development of the puppies so that they grow up in a nurturing environment, in order to give them a firm foundation of love and trust, and to expose them to different daily stimuli, such as traffic, stores, people, and animals.

The club conducts bi-monthly meetings in order to provide training and socialization for the puppies and club members. The club also partakes in activities designed to give the puppies a vast range of experiences with different sights, smells, and sounds. Examples include shopping malls, movie theaters, sporting events, community events, parks, museums, etc.

The UD puppy-raising club is one of only two on college campuses — the other is at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

About The Seeing Eye

Located in Morristown, N.J., The Seeing Eye, Inc. is the oldest existing guide dog school in the world. Its mission is to enhance the independence, dignity, and self-confidence of blind people through the use of Seeing Eye dogs.

In pursuit of this mission, The Seeing Eye breeds and raises puppies to become Seeing Eye dogs (or obtains them occasionally by purchase or exchange); trains Seeing Eye dogs to guide blind people; instructs blind people in the proper use, handling, and care of the dogs; and conducts and supports research on canine health and development.

Article by Diane Kukich

Photos by Doug Baker

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