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Training guide dogs is a labor of puppy love

BY Lillian Skye Noble

St. Petersburg Collegiate High/SPC

At first, Samantha Swift was hesitant about volunteering to raise puppies for Southeastern Guide Dogs. How on earth would she be able to part with a cuddly, adorable little friend she would grow so close to?

But Swift, a senior at St. Petersburg Collegiate High, said that once she found out how much a guide dog can impact a blind person's life, she knew she had to get involved.

For several months now, Swift has been an official "puppy raiser," sharing her home with different yellow Labrador retrievers who are guide dogs in training.

"My mom heard about Southeastern Guide Dogs when I was in kindergarten," Swift said. "The process began with my mom meeting up with the area coordinator in the Central Pinellas Puppy Raisers group. Then, we started attending the bimonthly meetings with other puppy raisers."

The organization made an in-home check, "to make sure our house, family and personal pets were a good fit for the program," she said. Then, they began puppy-sitting. "We sat five pups before getting our own."

As a volunteer puppy raiser, Swift is not only training the dogs to behave and to respond to commands, but she is also teaching them the values of love and trust, key elements in the relationship between guide dogs and their blind masters.

Because the puppies are in training and not yet certified as guide dogs, Swift had to get special permission from St. Petersburg Collegiate High's principal, Starla Metz, to bring the dogs on campus. "The pup has to wear their blue coat and be at the right age and skill level to come. When I brought Liberty (one of the pups the family had been sitting), she fell asleep under the desk in each of my classes.

"The dogs (we sat) were all amazing, and so were my professors and fellow students," Swift said.

Swift recently met Daniel, the first guide dog puppy she'll be raising start to finish. "We picked up Daniel from the Southeastern Guide Dog campus in Sarasota," she said. "Having Dan is different, because he isn't trained. All of the pups we sat had quite a lot of training already, and I just had to keep up with the commands."

Daniel and Swift are both beginners, she said. "Dan doesn't know very many (commands) yet, so it's a learning experience for both of us."

Now, Daniel is venturing out with Swift in her last semester of high school at St. Petersburg Collegiate on the St. Petersburg College Gibbs campus. Swift said she brings Daniel on her short days when she only has one class, and will later progress to longer days.

A few times, people in her classes have tried sneakily to pet him under the table or as he walks by, which is bad for the dog. People need to ask permission before petting him, Swift said, so that Daniel knows when he is on or off work.

"The pups really do learn to know that the coat being on means work," she said. After they reach 10 months, "the coat being off means play.

"They can flip it like a light switch," Swift said. "Pettings are only allowed in-coat if the pup is under control and dealing with it okay. Sneak petting might scare the pup."

Daniel trots around campus and wags his tail every time a student gushes over his silky ears, innocent eyes, or precious puppy paws. Although he is in training, since he tends to be the center of attention when he stops on the quad, he's like any other puppy as he tries to greet each new onlooker with a friendly lick. If he tries to jump, Swift gently reprimands him, reminding Daniel that when he is wearing his blue jacket that he is "on duty."

Eager to get a treat when he obeys his companion's commands, Daniel regularly looks to Swift for instruction. "Sometimes I have to remember that he is still a little puppy, not a fully grown guide dog," Swift said.

Swift has dedicated a Facebook album titled "Daniel Days" to commemorate her time with the growing puppy. Daniel will reside with her family for a little more than a year, during part of which Swift will be studying abroad in Sweden starting in the fall through Rotary Youth Exchange.

Becoming a guide dog is the goal, or a dog who works with post traumatic stress disorder patients, Swift said. "Anything, besides being a dropout, I would be so proud."

Training guide dogs is a labor of puppy love 02/05/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 5, 2014 11:12am]
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