Animals at Work

Future seeing-eye dog to complete undergrad studies next month

Mon, 01/30/2017 - 5:00pm

One month after the 83rd anniversary of the first official seeing-eye dog to go to work (Jan 29, 1929), a black lab named Otter will complete her understudies at Unity College, in Unity. For the past few months, three seniors studying with the Captive Wildlife Care program have taken the dog under their tutelage, teaching her basic manners and appropriate responses to all sorts of daily-life situations.

On an active campus of approximately 700 students, most of whom know Otter personally, the now 15-month-old pup has enjoyed various aspects of student life.

She has lived in the dorms, rotating every two weeks to the next handler. She has run the hallways, slept through lectures, crammed for tests, and sat court-side for basketball games (extra training required in order to refrain from jumping with the other fans, or to react negatively to the crowd’s “duck call”).

She’s visited McDonald's numerous times, played Frisbee, and through it all, learned the basic training skills needed to attempt the seeing-eye dog test for graduate school.

In some aspects, she’s deemed a shoe-in for the program.

When riding in vehicles, dogs of this program cannot be on the seats. Either they ride on the floor of the front passenger side, or in a crate in the back.

During a recent presentation by the three handlers at PAWS in Camden, Georgia Male spoke of a car accident involving Otter and herself. The car had been dragged by an 18-wheeler. When the car returned to a stop, the passenger side door wouldn’t open.

Male indicated to Otter to step onto the front seat and walk across to the other door. But Otter wouldn’t budge. She’d been taught not to do that, so she didn’t.

However, being the puppy that she is, and despite being raised from birth in preparation of this program, a few random slips have occurred. Otter is food-motivated. Kibble goes her way often, but only in a certain way. She is only allowed to eat the food handed to her, and never to eat anything off the floor. Yet, as happened during the presentation, a bit of kibble that hit the floor and rolled away was soon sought by a knowledgeable snout.

In that instance, Male, who’d gotten to the kibble first, pretended to reach into her pocket before handing Otter “another” piece.

The New York-based Guiding Eyes for the Blind breeding and training program started in 1954. Since then, 7,000 guide dog teams have entered into service at a rate of 160 graduates per year.

The program at Unity College is still relatively new.

Susan Bakaley Marshall, a Guiding Eyes representative, helped initiate the program in 2015, according to a news release on the college website. Marshall is the wife of a former instructor of the school. She started training her first pup in 2004, and grew to believe students participating in the process would benefit.

Aside from one advisor and declared support from the president of the college, the program is student-run and is entirely voluntary.

“The first time, we had a lot of raisers, a lot of sitters,” Zoe Picanso said. “They had two dogs, Mac and Malcolm, on campus. The following year – we were just getting past the second half of last year — we had two dogs that we took on campus. We had some other raisers, but those dogs weren’t really a good fit for campus life, noise-wise.”

This time around, the group has three raisers, one dog, and a club for other students interested in dogs and future involvement.

The program is time consuming. The guide dogs can only be crated for three hours at a time, meaning that the handler that day must take into account his or her own class time and daily schedule. This is different from the other raisers in the area who tend to be telecommuters, employees in dog-friendly venues, or retirees, according to Picanso. 

Raisers also meet with a regional manager in order to learn proper training techniques. They also meet at regional classes with about 10 other dogs and handlers in the area, including a person in Belfast, Picanso said. These dogs range in age from nine months to 15 months.

The breeding and birthing of potential guide dogs occurs in New York. Picanso said that the breeding operation is rather technical and heavy with science: “to make sure that they are breeding the best type of dog. That’s temperament, behavior.”

Otter came to Unity from her birth and preschool training program in New York at nine months of age. At 15 months, she heads back to New York. There she’ll be assessed for her agility and jumping ability, her response to commands, and her trained indifference to dropped food.

If she passes, she’ll learn new, specific processes for assisting the blind, and ultimately, be matched with a visually-impaired person for the next eight years of her working life. 

And through it all, she’ll likely always have the patience for McDonald’s, basketball games, and dressing in costume.

For updates on Unity’s seeing eye-dog program, as well as more pictures of Otter, check out Guiding Eyes for the Blind at Unity College Facebook page.

Reach Sarah Thompson at