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At USF St. Petersburg, an effort to make guide dogs part of campus life

ST. PETERSBURG

Anthony Loffler is pretty much inseparable from Jennings these days. It's hard not to want to spend all his time with the 5-month-old female yellow lab with inquisitive chestnut eyes.

Every morning Jennings and Loffler, a senior at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg majoring in political science, wake up around 6:30 a.m. She sits with him through his classes. He keeps her close during breaks between classes and makes sure she's running around and fed. She goes with him to coffee shops while he studies.

Jennings, after all, is a student, too — a guide dog in training.

But Loffler, 24, knows that in less than 10 months, his time with her will be coming to an end.

Jennings came to him in early December through the Puppy Club at USFSP, which has joined with Southeastern Guide Dogs in a program to help raise future guide dogs.

"Each dog is bred to have a destiny and purpose," said Southeastern Guide Dogs media relations manager Ruth Lando.

Southeastern Guide Dogs breeds about 250 dogs a year, usually a mix of golden retrievers and labradors, bred for their intelligence and health. There's a two-year process from birth to the time the dog goes to serve potentially as a guide dog — something area coordinator John Bauer said not all dogs are cut out for.

"Being a guide dog is one of the most challenging things to do," he said.

But it takes a village, Lando said, to get the dogs ready, and that's where the Puppy Club has come in.

At 6 weeks old, the puppies are sent to live with "raisers" for 14 months, being socialized to humans before they come back to Guide Dog University. There, they'll find out whether they're destined to be a guide dog, service animal, used to breed future guide dogs or follow another path.

Loffler is the first member of the club to be a full-time puppy raiser because he lives off campus. So far, the others have been "puppy sitters" — taking the dogs from other raisers for a day at a time, bringing them to their classes, and returning them at the end of the day. But through an expanding program that will allow USFSP students to house guide dogs or guide dogs in-training in certain dorm living communities, more students in the growing club will get to do the same by fall.

Stephanie Campos, president of the Puppy Club, said the campus community has been welcoming to the dogs on campus.

Already, the faculty development lounge on the second floor of the library houses two crates and puppy toys. They're for student sitters who are taking exams or going to labs they don't want the dogs to participate in.

Stephanie Fuhr, an instructional designer at the library who has applied to be a puppy raiser, said the effort started because many of the librarians love dogs.

"We haven't had too many this semester," she said. "But I think we're going to start seeing more."

Jennings has gotten better at sitting through long classes, Loffler said. Once she threw up in a critical theories class. Another time she barked after waking up from a dream, scaring herself and the class.

Every week, Loffler and Jennings go to "kindergarten school" together and to bi-monthly check-ins to see how her training is coming along.

When Jennings graduates from kindergarten school this month, she'll be able to wear the jacket that identifies her as part of Southeastern Guide Dogs.

Mike Jernigan, a USFSP alumnus who walked across the graduation stage in 2012 with his guide dog Brittani, told Puppy Club members at a recent meeting how life-changing the dogs can be.

In 2004, Jernigan, a U.S. Marine serving in Iraq, remembered waking up in a hospital thinking his life was over. He had lost his eyes, suffered a crushed cranium, had a mangled arm and foot.

"I lost my freedom and independence and thought my life was over," he said. "I was a Marine without a mission."

He returned to Washington, D.C., and went back to school. Two years later, Brittani came to him from Southeastern Guide Dogs.

"When I open my eyes every day, it's all black," Jernigan said. "It takes courage to walk into a sea of darkness every day."

Brittani brought that courage, offering safety and comfort on multiple occasions.

Crowds, Jernigan said, were a trigger for his PTSD. Once, as they came upon a protest, he remembered holding onto Brittani's leash, hoping to make it through the crowd.

But the dog stopped, licked his palms and forced him to sit. Jernigan's hands were sweating and he was shaking.

"The dog stopped because she knew I was about to go over the edge," he said. "I call that our Lassie moment."

Today, Brittani is retired and living on St. Pete Beach as a pet. Jernigan is waiting for a new guide dog.

Hearing stories like that, Loffler said, will make parting ways with Jennings easier in a few months.

"Sometimes you'd almost wish she didn't make it," Loffler said. "But then you … realize how inspiring it is and how important the work they do is."

At USF St. Petersburg, an effort to make guide dogs part of campus life 03/09/17 [Last modified: Thursday, March 9, 2017 5:53pm]
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