Who Let the Puppies Out?

Skye Donaldson
Print Content Editor

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“Bella! Bellaaaa,” says junior Griffin Burton. It seems as though this kind of event that occurs when Burton opens her room to a guest happens all too often. Bella, a yellow lab and Burton’s Leader Dog in training, has squeezed her way out of the gap that Burton has created in the doorway and has darted into the hall to greet me. Burton has just returned from work, and before that, golf practice, and is not amused in the least. I put my notebook, phone and pen in one hand, and help funnel Bella back into Burton’s room in Barbier with the other.

Last year, the Barbier dorm didn’t have a soul living in it last year. Barbier is old, not attractive, and can’t even be found in the Residence Halls tab on the RC website.

But now a few residents live in Barbier — some walk on two legs, some walk on four.

Burton and Bella enjoy their new home in Barbier, which was renovated to accommodate the students who are caring for RC’s inaugural class of puppies. The college partners with Leader Dog for the Blind to provide students and employees the opportunity to raise puppies who will become guide dogs through Leader Dog’s rigorous training program.

Burton was chosen for the program and committed to raising Bella for a minimum of one year. At the end of her training, Bella will become a guide dog for a blind, visually impaired or deaf-blind person.

In addition to training Bella, Burton  plays on the basketball team and golf team, works an off campus job, and is in her junior year as both an elementary education and an early childhood major, balancing 17 credits this fall semester.

While her job and athletic practices are physically demanding, the Leader Dog Program demands more than physical aspects.

“There’s a bunch of different guidelines,” Burton said,  “You have to say ‘park’ when she goes to the bathroom because when the dog is actually on duty she can’t just go to the bathroom. ‘Park’ is the command for the dogs to relieve themselves.”

Burton said following the guidelines is the most challenging aspect of raising Bella. Her puppy has to wear her bandana when she’s working, can only have certain toys, and has to know how to heel, sit, stand and laydown. She especially can’t jump on the furniture, which is something Bella really likes to do, Burton said.

As I sit on the floor of Burton’s room, Bella begins to gnaw at the ice bags I have icing my arm. While I ask her trainer questions, Bella promptly sits in my lap and starts to lick my ear. So much so that she finds the need to put her paws on my shoulders while licking my face whole, effectively bringing me down to a prone position on Burton’s floor.

“Despite what she’s doing to you right now, she’s a very even-tempered dog. Compared to the other puppies, she’s super calm. She does get excited when she sees people, but once she figures out it’s time to work, she’s ready,” Burton said.

Bella now sits beside me gnawing again on the ice bags. She manages to strip away a strand of Saran Wrap that was holding the ice to my arm and brings it to Burton so she can fish it out of her mouth. Burton finds the Saran Wrap tucked away in the back of her mouth and pulls it out. Along with the strand, a baby tooth plops onto the floor and Bella proceeds to lick at it curiously. “And she’s losing her baby teeth now. That’s not the first one that’s fallen out on me.”

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Burton compares raising this puppy to what it might be like to raise a child. When Bella sleeps, Burton sleeps. “I told my mother I was not having kids anymore because it’s just too much work!” she says, jokingly of course.

Going to ‘puppy classes’ is almost like taking your kid to school, if school only happened once a month, Burton explains. Puppy classes are group classes for the puppies. In each segment, a certain subject will be taught. In her last puppy class, Bella learned about stairs.

While at the puppy class, Bella’s puppy counselor evaluates how she is doing, and judges Bella’s weight and fitness. The counselor also works with Burton to advise on what she needs to be doing in order to help Bella be successful.

Scott Cagnet, assistant dean of student engagement, helped develop the Puppy Program. “Our best hope is to be able to expose the puppies that are undergoing training to as many experience and environments as possible,” Cagnet wrote. Additionally, the Rochester College webpage for the Puppy Program emphasizes that RC is“ dedicated to serving the community by raising and providing behavioral training to puppies that will later serve those who are visually impaired.”

Burton’s motivation for joining the program aligns well with RC’s intentions of raising the puppies on campus. 

“I love puppies. They’re one of my favorite things,” Burton said. “I can’t have a dog of my own, so this is the next best thing.  But I think I want Bella to pass this training so she can help someone. That’s the ultimate goal: to help someone. I think this is one of the best ways to help, hands down.”