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Canine training 101

Students work with Seeing Eye dogs.

Stephanie Kerrigan, a Rowan University psychology major, with Harrison, her Seeing Eye dog-to-be. Taking him to class is a challenge, she says, because "he tends to snore."
Stephanie Kerrigan, a Rowan University psychology major, with Harrison, her Seeing Eye dog-to-be. Taking him to class is a challenge, she says, because "he tends to snore."Read moreJOHN COSTELLO / Staff Photographer

Stephanie Kerrigan takes her Seeing Eye dog-to-be, Harrison, shopping at the mall. She takes him to sporting events, and to friends' houses. The biggest challenge, the Rowan University junior said, is taking him to class.

"He tends to snore . . . and he's loud," said Kerrigan, a psychology major. "I don't take him to exams because I don't want his snoring to distract the other students."

At college campuses nationwide, students are taking on more than a full load of classes and part-time jobs. As part of programs at schools such as Rowan, Ithaca College, Rutgers University, and the University of Delaware, 2-month-old puppies are placed full-time with seeing students for as long as 15 months. Afterward, the pups will head off to guide-dog schools, where they'll start official training to be the full-time eyes for a blind companion.

At colleges, the dogs learn basic skills, from understanding when to be quiet to showing restraint with squirrels (apparently the hardest challenge). Guide-dog schools say campuses are great places to learn the basics because students are active and can expose a dog to a variety of social situations. The volunteers say they learn a lot about responsibility and time management.

The hardest part, they say, is giving the dog back.

George Brelsford is dean of students at the University of Delaware, which started its puppy club 14 years ago. There are 18 dogs on the campus, including Thunder, Brelsford's dog. His wife, Robin Brelsford, heads the program at Rowan, and Thunder is their sixth Seeing Eye puppy; they expect he will graduate this summer, when they'll get their seventh.

"I tell people it's both the best and the worst thing I've gotten involved with," Brelsford said. "You get a dog and he's your dog and you treat him like he's your dog and you love him. And by the time they're getting to be a good dog and stopped chewing things and being rambunctious, that's when we give them back to Seeing Eye."

The university's connection to the program began when several older students in the New Castle, Del., club wanted to continue raising the dogs on the University of Delaware campus. They approached the Seeing Eye in Morristown and got permission from the dorms, the administration, and other officials.

In order for students to get a dog, they first have to pass rigorous training, which involves puppy-sitting for fellow club members, a test, and an application process. They also have to get permission from their professors to bring the dogs to class.

Many who apply never make it to the end of the process, said Chris Parrillo, 21, president of the Rutgers University club and a junior majoring in environmental planning. The guide-dog schools pay volunteers a small stipend, about $75 every three months to help pay for dog food, and all of the canines' medical needs are covered.

At Rutgers, 15 dogs are involved in the program, Parrillo said. Many live on campus, where there are designated apartments that allow the dogs, and students meet once a week to talk about the challenges they are experiencing.

"Every dog has a different kind of challenge," Parrillo said. "For Labs, it's about jumping and being excited. For German shepherds, it's about separation anxiety."

When it came time for Parrillo to give away Elroy, his Lab mix, he got a happy - and very rare - surprise. For the first time in the Seeing Eye's history, there were more dogs available than there were people who needed them. So he was given the opportunity to keep Elroy, who now lives in Marlton with Parrillo's family and two other dogs. Parrillo is waiting for his new puppy to arrive, but is a little concerned about what will transpire during winter break when he comes home and there are four dogs in the house.

The puppy-raiser is allowed first dibs on his or her dog if it fails to pass its eventual training at the institute, said Kathy Daly, the assistant manager and area coordinator for puppy placement at the Seeing Eye. Only about 50 to 60 percent of the dogs pass the formal training, she said.

The institute coordinates with students at Rowan, Delaware, and Rutgers, with about 50 dogs participating. Other schools, such as Ithaca College and Colorado State University, work with other dog-training schools, such as the Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.

Daly said other colleges have asked to open puppy clubs for their students, but Seeing Eye does not have enough staff to oversee all the students. Like the puppies, younger trainers are very enthusiastic and require lots of attention.

"Maybe they had a puppy at home, but their parents probably did the training, so they don't remember housebreaking, or how to teach them not to nip and stop barking, and basic commands," Daly said. "They're like a first-time parent, and as soon as the puppy has diarrhea or they vomit, they're on the phone right away, frantic.

"They call all the time, and their day is different than my day. I'm up at 5:30 a.m. and their day starts at 10 p.m., so I get calls at 2 in the morning," she said, adding that she was happy to answer their questions.

Tomasita Jallad, 24, a graduate student studying higher education at Rowan, is on her fifth dog, Zeus. She started with the puppy program during her sophomore year, so she's now well aware that her schedule depends on her dog. When he's up, she's up, and he joins her at meetings and in her office, where he has his own set of toys.

She prefers retriever/Lab mixes, usually males, because they're "goofy and sweet and have high energy." At night, Zeus comes to classes, to the mall, to Barnes & Noble and Old Navy.

Wherever she goes, Zeus captures attention, which is a good and a bad thing.

"He's very cute, but he's working," she said. "So the hardest thing is educating the public that it's important not to pet him and about the purpose of the training program."

Her first dog, Brownie, is guiding in Massachusetts; her second, Voyager, was released from the program because he was too skittish and lacked confidence; he was placed with a friend. Her third, Wilbur, is guiding in Ohio, and the fourth, Quasar, is guiding in North Carolina.

After volunteers return their dogs to the guide school, they are allowed to visit just once - to see their dog in action in the harness, guiding someone through a town walk. They're told whether the dog was placed and where, but there's no contact between the new owner and the puppy-raiser.

"I can't tell you how hard it is to leave the dogs," said Robin Brelsford. "We just have to understand that there's a purpose to these puppies and the potential to bring something amazing to someone else's life."

Kerrigan, the Rowan junior, is trying to prepare herself for Harrison's departure in a few months. But mostly she's not thinking about it.

"I'm worried for me, but not for him," she said. "He's going to do great, he'll be fine. I'll probably be a wreck."