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Hundreds of UGA students give back by raising future service dogs

Writer: Kristen Morales,

Vicki has learned to be patient during classes, but so far she’s gotten out of long exams. It’s OK to cut Vicki some slack though. She’s only 10 months old.

This fall, if her work on campus stays on track, she’ll go back to her home in New York to learn to be a full-fledged service dog.

Vicki is one of around 120 puppies—mainly Labradors and golden retrievers, but also some other breeds—that get formative training with students at UGA. Raised by an army of volunteers, many of whom sign up even if they can only watch a dog for a few hours or overnight, the dogs learn basic obedience and get exposed to an array of life situations. When they’re 16 to 18 months old, they begin full training with Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind in Smithtown, New York.

The inevitable departure is bittersweet for Vicki’s raiser, Jana Burchette, a third-year exercise and sport science major. Burchette said she was interested in the program her freshman year, and after doing more research on what was required, she felt inspired by the work the dogs would go on to do.

“Letting her go is going to be really hard; she’s like a child,” Burchette said. “But I want her to do something good for somebody. I want her to be a guide dog.”

UGA is home to the largest group of puppy raisers for the Guide Dog Foundation. The organization mainly has families up and down the East Coast raising puppies, and another group of students at Georgia Southern University, but they pale in comparison to the nearly 250 UGA students who volunteer their time to be puppy raisers.

The program’s roots at UGA started nearly 10 years ago with just one student, said Deana Izzo, the Georgia field representative for the foundation. The idea took off. Today, Izzo said, most of the puppy raisers are students in veterinary science programs, but students from across all colleges take part.

Working with students also has introduced some protocols for puppy raising, both with the foundation and with UGA. The time frame for raising a puppy meshes well with the time a student spends on campus, and students know they will have a dog for a set period of time but not beyond graduation. On the issue of allowing pets in residence halls, it was decided that future guide dogs are allowed. And for long exams or plans to study abroad, “buddy” and “camper” students are available to watch the puppy in the interim. If a student needs some time to study without a puppy, there are dozens of students willing to step in and help.

To be in the foundation’s program, student volunteers—with and without dogs—must attend regular obedience sessions, where they go over basic training and address any issues. Students who volunteer to be campers also must be willing to host a puppy at least twice a month. Izzo said there is a general sense among the volunteers that you have to give help to get help.

“It’s not an easy program. If you were to apply, from application to the day you get your puppy, it’s going to take three months,” Izzo said. “We want to make sure that they are as prepared as we can make them for the commitment that they think they want to do.”

Madison Fellows, a first-year animal health student from Hiram, is starting the training to get her first puppy. She’s already dreading the day the dog will leave, but she also says the experience will help her later in life.

“It’s a really good way to have a dog on campus, but it’s still a huge responsibility,” she said. “I’m going to be a vet, so it’s going to be good for me first to know how to not get too attached to an animal.”

Raising a puppy, Izzo added, also can give students a great sense of accomplishment.

“This is really the first thing they’re doing without mom and dad, and I think that makes much more of an impact,” she said. “And the way that the community rallies around people who raise puppies, even if you’re not a dog lover, it’s still impressive. They’re still going to stop and say, ‘That’s really cool.’ ”

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Story originally published in May issue of UGA Columns

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