Students Raising Guide Dogs for the Blind

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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.

Knowing that dog just might give someone without eyes a way to see the world, that is the reward. That’s why we do it.”Nicole Darbya sophomore at Nevada Union

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 or call 530-477-4230.

Police Dogs Helping Our Community


K9 UnitPolice dogs are an integral part of the law enforcement system even if we do not see them. In fact, K-9 units are used at the federal, state and local levels. A K-9 unit is composed of the police dog and the handler who is carefully chosen to work with the dog. A police dog’s career typically lasts about 6 years, and the handler must be dedicated to working with the dog for its entire career.

German Shepherds have been trusted police dogs over the years because of their intelligence, their trainability, their protection and their sense of smell. Another dog making an appearance as a police dog is the Belgian Malinois. This dog has many of the same characteristics of the German Shepherd, but is thought to be more reactive than the German Shepherd. Some agencies have begun to prefer the Belgian Malinois.  Pit bulls are also starting to be used.

Because German Shepherd dogs are a popular pet in the United States, their natural aggressive and protective qualities have been diminished through breeding. Other breeds used for task specifics jobs include Giant Schnauzers, Blood Hounds, Rottweilers, Boxers and Doberman Pinschers.

Police dogs assist in the day-to-day work of a police officer; however, some dogs have specific training. There are search and rescue dogs that help to locate and find missing people or objects. There are cadaver dogs that are used to locate decaying bodies, their sense of smell so strong they can smell a cadaver underneath the water. Detection dogs and explosive searching dogs can locate drugs and explosives. Arson dogs can smell trances of accelerants that were used to start a fire.

Regardless of the specific task that the dog is trained for, all dogs must begin with basic obedience training. It is vital that a police dog obeys the commands of its handler above all else. After obedience training the dog is involved in agility and endurance training, which helps prepare the dog for obstacles it may encounter in a city or working environment. Finally, the dog is trained for its specific task like those mentioned above.

With a sense of smell 50 times stronger than a human’s sense of smell, a police dog is able to complete tasks that might be too dangerous or too time consuming for other police officers. Because of these great attributes, it is no surprise that a police dog is considered a member of the force.

Additional Note:

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The Nevada City Police Department has recently acquired a German Shepherd, Rudiger, its first K9 officer!  We hope he will be the first of many dogs trained by the police to protect the officers and assist in drug detection throughout Western Nevada County. Rudiger’s handler, officer Scott Goin, said that specialized training of every police dog costs $300 a month.  You can help support the K9 program by sending checks in any amount payable to the Sean M. Walsh Foundation to:  Western Nevada County K9 Association, PO Box 2174, Nevada City, CA 95959. Your donations are tax-deductible.  

Lastly, we want to extend a special thank you to Dr. Susan Murphy at Four Paws Animal Clinic in Nevada City for donating free medical services for Rudiger’s future care.  This is a very generous gift to the police department and our community.

Friends of Western Gateway Dog Park Set to Help Nevada County Pets of the Homeless…

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Friends of Western Gateway Dog Park in Penn Valley is proud to announce its participation in Holiday Market’s Community Involvement Program to help Nevada County Pets of the Homeless.  

This non-profit organization distributes pet food and supplies year round to those in need.  They also give to other homeless and low income groups in Grass Valley and Nevada City, feeding up to 150 dogs each month.  With your help they will be able to reach even more people and their pets.

Every time you shop at the Holiday Market and use your Rewards Card, you earn WOW points which you can donate to Friends of Western Gateway Dog Park. We will then use this credit to buy dog food for Pets of the Homeless.   

When you are at the register, be sure to tell the checker that you are donating your points to our dog park account so we will receive the proper credit.

Nevada County Pets of the Homeless also has a collection barrel outside the market in case you want to personally drop off any dog food or supplies. (They especially need small dog food which is always in short supply.)

Thank you so much for your generosity.

Friends of Western Gateway Dog Park

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