Puppy Love: Nevada Union and Bear River FFA students raising guide dogs for the blind
Nevada Union and Bear River high schools have welcomed some furry, four-legged students onto campus this school year — a group of part-Labrador, part-golden retriever dogs.
Students in each school’s Future Farmers of America program are volunteering with Guide Dogs for the Blind, a California-based nonprofit, to raise companion dogs for the visually impaired.
“We get them as our best friends, and then we hand them off and they help someone for the rest of their lives,” said Paige Zolldan, a junior at Bear River.
Both FFA puppy-raising groups started last school year as an opportunity for students to participate in a long-term agriculture- or animal-related project outside of the classroom, one component of the larger FFA program.
There are around 10 students in the Nevada Union FFA puppy-raising group, four of whom are currently raising dogs. The Bear River FFA puppy-raising group has about eight students, six of whom are raising dogs.
Many of the group’s current members were immediately interested when they heard about the Guide Dogs for the Blind opportunity.
“You get to bring a dog everywhere with you,” said Arabelle Wahl, a senior at Nevada Union Technical High School. “Who wouldn’t be excited?”
But the puppy-raising program requires a serious commitment from the students, who are typically paired with a puppy when the animal is around 8 weeks old and take care of the dog for anywhere from 12-15 months. As puppy-raisers, the students are mainly responsible for socializing their animal, as well as teaching it basic commands and good house manners. The FFA students’ efforts help prepare the animals to enter Guide Dogs for the Blind’s formal training program at the nonprofit’s San Rafael campus. There, the animals learn more specific skills that allow them to function as a guide dog, including how to lead someone in a straight line and how to spot and stop for overhead obstacles.
If the animals graduate from the training, they’re then matched with blind or low-vision people through the United States and Canada.
Guide Dogs for the Blind, which was founded in 1942, has more than 2,000 puppy-raisers spread throughout 10 Western states. Schools are ideal environments for the puppies to learn some of the basic skills and confidence they need before they head into training, said Celeste Butrym, field representative for Guide Dogs for the Blind in Northern California.
“So many things happen at school,” Butrym said. “There’s crowds, there’s buses, there’s all kinds of noise.”
But the dogs don’t just accompany their raisers to class; they are the students’ around-the-clock companions. While some of the group members who are not currently raising puppies are available to step in and act as “puppy-sitters” if the raiser isn’t able to take their dog to a particular event or class, the majority of the responsibility for taking care of the animal falls to its raiser.
That means students often have to sacrifice their free time or their social lives to put their dog’s needs first, said Lisa McClelland, the leader of the Nevada Union puppy-raising group. McClelland, an instructional aide at Pleasant Valley Elementary School, has raised more than 30 puppies over 23 years for Guide Dogs for the Blind.
“They’ve had to give up maybe going to a football game, or for some of them, going to a friend’s house,” McClelland said. “They’re very passionate about wanting to raise the guide dogs.”
The students have also had to work through some of the challenges that are inevitable when raising a puppy. Many endured sleepless nights as the animals acclimated to their new homes; several shared stories of potty-training accidents that their dogs had in various spots on campus.
Puppy-raisers are responsible for figuring out a way to help the animal through the situation that is hampering its development, said Sam Travis, a junior at Nevada Union.
“You really get to know your dog and you learn all their different cues and what you need to look out for,” Travis said.
But there’s at least one challenge that has proved difficult to overcome for many of the students as they navigate the halls with their furry friends.
“When you’re late to class, everybody wants to pet your dog,” Wahl said.
The animals have been warmly welcomed at both high school campuses. They possess student identification cards bearing their pictures, and will claim spots in the schools’ yearbooks.
Bear River Principal Amy Besler said having the dogs on campus has had a positive effect on school culture.
“There’s something about having these adorable puppies on campus that just changes the whole dynamic,” Besler said. “When you’re in the room, and there’s that puppy there, it just makes you feel happier.”
Though the students have bonded with their dogs, they said their ultimate goal is to do everything they can to help their puppies fulfill the mission of Guide Dogs for the Blind.
They understand the broader impact their participation in the program will have for someone else, said Nicole Darby, a sophomore at Nevada Union.
“Knowing that dog just might give someone without eyes a way to see the world, that is the reward,” Darby said. “That’s why we do it.”
To contact Staff Writer Emily Lavin, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4230.