Near the start of the school year, the University of South Florida held a volunteer fair in the Marshall Student Center on the Tampa campus.
While dozens of different clubs and organizations used whatever methods they could to get students’ attention, all four furry members of the Puppy Raisers Club had to do was sit there and wag their tails.
(Originally aired Oct. 17, 2018)
Within the next few years, the quartet – Finley, Anja, Marvin and Sadie – could end up as guide dogs for the blind or service dogs for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder – and USF students are playing a part.
Students on both the Tampa and St. Petersburg campuses are answering the call to help the Sarasota-based non-profit group Southeastern Guide Dogs by setting up clubs of eager volunteer trainers.
“The main job of a puppy raiser is to teach the puppy their basic obedience commands and to get them out in the community and socialized and comfortable with anything they might encounter on a daily basis so that once they do go to the permanent person that they’re going to be with, they are prepared for anything,” said Meghan Watson.
The senior business marketing major helps run the Tampa club and is training her second dog, Finley. She jokes that the 5-month-old golden retriever is her “Velcro dog,” accompanying her everywhere she goes.
“Finley has really developed into a pup that wants to learn, she’s very curious, she wants to know what everything is,” said Watson.
That curiosity helps, as Watson said Finley seems to be picking up the basic commands like sit, stay and heel pretty well.
“And then there’s more advanced commands such as close, where they curl up between your legs and lay down,” she said.
That command comes in handy when dogs accompany their trainers to class, where they’re expected to be seen and not heard.
“A lot of my teachers love them, as long as they’re not interrupting class, they’re great,” Watson said, laughing. “I had one teacher actually add my last dog’s name to the roster and call her during attendance every single day.”
That dog, Rosie, has been in formal training at Southeastern to become a guide dog since May, and should be placed with a new owner later this year.
Laura Zellner is Southeastern’s regional manager for puppy-raising services. She said college students like Watson make great trainers for a number of reasons. One, they have the energy to keep up with the pups. Two, they’re regularly on a busy environment with lots of people, the perfect place for a would-be guide dog to learn to focus.
“The puppies get to walk around and see the students and humans of all shapes and sizes,” she said. “You have your exposure to the bicycles, your skateboards. They have high ceilings, low ceilings; it teaches the puppies to settle when they go with the student to class.”
Zellner added that a crowded event like the volunteer fair is also perfect to see not just how the dogs might react – but how their trainers do as well.
“If you walk into an environment such as what we were experiencing today and the dog is showing stress signs, you need to be able to leave and be prepared to leave and not just say, ‘Oh no, I’m going to be here cause I want to be here.’ It’s all about the dog,” said Zellner.
While the Puppy Raisers Club is new at USF Tampa, it’s been in existence at USF St. Petersburg since 2016.
They’re also taking the experience to another level, as more than 30 students are members of the Puppy Love Living Learning Community (LLC). The group of mostly freshmen live in their own section of a residence hall, and, come this December, be joined by four Southeastern puppies that they’ll help raise.
Last school year, club president, senior Jesse Blackman, was among the students who raised the first dog who lived on campus full-time, a yellow Labrador named Petey.
“It wasn’t any different from having a dog in an apartment or a house,” she said. “When they’re not working and we’re not outside practicing, they’re basically just regular pets.”
“People were very accepting of Petey, I think that the biggest problem is that everyone wanted to say hello to him and after a certain time, they’re not allowed to be pet while they’re in their vest, so people were disappointed when they couldn’t pet him and say hello to him,” said Blackman.
While Blackman and her three suitemates worked together to raise Petey, one person – in this case, student Stephanie Campos – was formally recognized as the puppy trainer. It’s a situation that will be repeated with the puppies when they move into LLC later this year.
“So there’s one person who’s technically the raiser so it’s their responsibility, but it’s kind of like ‘it takes a village’ situation, so we all help out, we all watch the dog, we all take care of the dog,” said Blackman.
Steph Fuhr is an adjunct instructor at USF St. Petersburg and faculty advisor to both the club and the LLC. She’s in the process of raising her second dog for Southeastern, Celia, an 11-month-old black lab who slept beneath the table at her feet during an interview.
Fuhr said the students are “amazing” for taking on such a job.
“Celia’s my second dog, and I was around 32 when I got my first dog,” she said, referring to Conway, Celia’s older half-brother who’s finishing training to become a guide dog.
“It’s a good way to have a dog in college cause sometimes you don’t know where you’re going to end up after college so it’s great to have it for that year, but these kids, I don’t know at 18, 19 that I would have been able to commit a year to a dog and then turn it over, so I have a great deal of respect for them.”
That last part – turning the dog back over to Southeastern is the one answer students trainers say over and over. But every time, it’s also marked with happiness about the difference the dogs will make in someone else’s life.
“It’s the worst feeling ever, but once you see who they’re going to and what impact that they have, you realize that that person needs them so much more than you do,” said Watson.