URI students training puppies to be guide dogs for blind individuals

KINGSTON, R.I. – November 17, 2015 – It was serendipitous that Caitlyn Landry and Kaitlin Kohut became roommates as freshmen at the University of Rhode Island. They didn’t know each other and had grown up many miles apart, but both had an interest in training dogs to be service animals for the blind.

Kohut, a native of Holbrook, N.Y., had been a volunteer at the Guide Dog Foundation on Long Island as a high school student, and Landry, of Vernon, Conn., said she had always wanted to raise a guide dog, “but I wasn’t allowed to because my mom thought I’d get too attached to it,” she said.

Now they’re getting their chance. The two students formed the Puppy Raisers club at URI, and, along with students Katie LaBlue, Sarah Appleton and Jenna Beauchemin, became certified through the non-profit Guiding Eyes for the Blind to train dogs to become guide dogs. Now four yellow Labrador retrievers spend all day every day with the students as part of their training.

“The dogs come to school with us, we take them to class if the teacher allows, and we have a home base on campus where the dogs can stay if they aren’t allowed in a lab or other class,” said Landry, a junior in the pre-veterinary science program whose dog is named Katie.

The dogs are almost never alone, since most of the more than 40 other members of the Puppy Raisers – many of whom are in the process of becoming certified to train guide dogs – are happy to serve as sitters or walk them around campus.

The dogs and their trainers attend a formal class twice a month in Ledyard, Conn., with others in the area raising guide dogs. And every Thursday they gather for meetings of the Puppy Raisers in a classroom at URI for what they call “a mini puppy class.”

The dogs are trained to be comfortable in all kinds of settings and situations and to be responsive to their master regardless of whatever distractions they may face. “Our job is to socialize them, to expose them to a variety of situations, and to teach them to be confident in all different scenarios,” said Landry.

The students said the blowing autumn leaves are a distraction that the dogs must be trained to ignore, and they recently took the dogs to the Kingston train station to become acclimated to the sounds and activities of that setting.

“At one of our meetings we put on blindfolds and had someone lead the dog while we held the leash to get an appreciation for what the dogs will be doing one day,” said Kohut, whose dog is named Tessi. “It was an eye-opening experience for all of us. To feel your dog have total control over where you’re going is something you’re not used to. You really have to trust them.”

After about 18 months of training, the dogs complete a test that determines their future career. Some will become guide dogs, while others become breeders of future guide dogs or continue their training to work with police to be drug detectors or serve in a “healing autism” program.

“The dogs decide what career they want to choose,” said Kohut, a junior wildlife conservation biology major. “The people at Guiding Eyes for the Blind read their body language and determine their career based on how they react to different situations.”

Kohut and Landry agree that it is difficult to see a dog they have become attached to graduate and be placed elsewhere. But that’s exactly what the animals are being trained for.

“You know the dogs aren’t yours from the day you get them, so you see them in a different way. After watching a dog be placed with a blind person, I couldn’t wait to get my own dog and see it graduate,” said Kohut. “It’s not going to be easy to give up that dog, but you know they have a bigger purpose in life, that they’re going to completely change someone’s life for the better, and that’s personally rewarding.”

Pictured above

URI students raising guide dogs for the blind are (back row, l-r) Caitlyn Landry with dog Katie and Katie LaBlue with Pogo; (front row, l-r) Jenna Beauchmin, Kaitlin Kohut with Tessi, and Sarah Appleton with Romeo.

Kaitlin Kohut (right) leads her dog Tessi during a training session at URI.

Photos by Nora Lewis