CSU students raise future guide dogs

We all do a double take when we see them. Those furry four-legged vested puppies steal our hearts on campus. But why are they here?

PUPPY
Nizana, a 4.5 month year-old guide dog in training, enjoys a snowy walk around The Oval Wednesday afternoon. (Photo: Abbie Parr)

Not that I’m complaining, but what are those dogs up to?

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Green-vested puppies are part of Guide Dogs for the Blind. Each dog you see is paired with a puppy trainer who raises the dog from two months until about 15 months old. This is the first step in a two-step program, according to Fred Sprague, a Guide Dogs for the Blind leader. After the puppy raising stage, if the puppy graduates, it is advanced to a guide dog campus in either California or Oregon for eight to 12 weeks before being matched with a blind person.

“In those eight weeks they should learn everything, from learning how to pull on a harness to how to deal with curbs and change in elevation,” said Mei Yuen, a senior biological science major,who has been raising Nizana, a golden retriever, for about three months.

Nizana is Yuen’s third puppy through the organization, so she knows what Nizana needs to learn to become a successful guide dog.

All the puppies you see on campus are in the first stage of the program— “puppy raising.” For the first year the dogs are taught commands such as how to sit, stay, lie down, come, wait, do their business, go to bed, OK and that’s enough.

“Everything is all based on positive reward; that’s our training method,” Yuen said. “There’s no scolding or shock collars. It’s all ‘hey you did something great, here’s some food.’”

Nizana came to Denver on the puppy truck — basically a decked out limo for puppies — last November, where Yuen picked her up and brought her to her temporary home in Fort Collins.

For the first two months, Nizana was raised like any other puppy. During that time, Nizana learned her name, how and when she needed to go to the bathroom, played around and got used to an eating schedule.

“It’s pretty much like having a normal dog,” Yuen said. “Once they are 16 weeks old, they get their rabies shot and another booster and that’s when they can start going in public.”

Nizana’s time on campus helps learn manners and become desensitized to real-world distractions.

“Self control is a big deal in the puppy-raising stage,” Yuen said. “It’s part of the intelligence obedience, like knowing if something isn’t right and staying back even if their owner is telling them to go.”

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All dogs struggle with something in the program, according to Yuen — it’s a learning process. Many dogs have troubles with seeing something on the floor and not eating it.

“The first week of school, Nizana was able to lay down in class, like got it, no problem,” Yuen said. “Now, we’re working on staying down and either going to sleep or just sitting there.”

For those feeling bad for the dogs always having to be alert, Yuen said, “They enjoy what they do, they love being with you all day. They get to explore things instead of being cooped up at home.”

None of the dogs are forced to do anything they don’t want to do, according to Yuen.

“They are essentially part of the family,” she said.

So next time you see Nizana or another puppy in a green vest on campus, smile and nod, knowing they are going to heavily impact someone’s life upon graduation, but remember that the puppies are at work and need to stay focused.

Whether a graduated guide dog or not, Yuen said people should always ask to pet someone’s dog. That being said, once given permission, feel free to give them all the love and attention you would give your own dog.

Collegian A&E Writer Natalie Wendl can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @NatalieWendl.