He quietly comes into the classroom without drawing attention to himself. As students file in and take their homework and books out he sits calmly in the front. His name is Rio — he’s not a teacher or a student but a guide dog in training.
The 15-month-old black labrador belongs to accounting professor Kate Lancaster, and wherever she goes, he follows. It is an exhausting job at times but Lancaster has been training puppies for Guide Dogs of America (GDA) since 2003.
“It has been a dream of mine for a long time. I lost a dog and I felt like I was settled enough where I could devote some time to a puppy,” said Lancaster, who has previously trained four guide dogs.
College of Liberal Arts advisor Wendy Spradlin also shares this passion for raising dogs; she has four.
“I am kind of collector when it comes to dogs. I have a pack at home; I actually have four Portuguese water dogs.”
Skipper, Spradlin’s only working dog, is a trained eight-year-old therapy dog.
Each time Lancaster gets a new puppy she drives to the GDA headquarters in Sylmar, Calif. where dogs are bred on site including labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and German shepherds since these breeds have identifiable characteristics that are crucial to the qualities of a good guide dog.
At eight-weeks-old, each puppy is paired with a volunteer trainer.
“They say, ‘Here’s Rio’ and they put him in your arms and it’s just almost an immediate attraction, puppies are pretty darn cute,” Lancaster said. “I get attached the moment I pick them up.”
Lancaster takes on the role of foster mom for the next 16 months. Basic obedience and socialization is taught for the initial training, while the trainer exposes the puppy to as much of the world as possible. At this stage, puppies learn to come, stay, sit, heel and leave it.
“(The puppies) come with a manual and it is a learn by doing process,” Lancaster said, explaining that raising a puppy sometimes feels like raising a child.
“You couldn’t put a child in a kennel or closet or leave them in their room and ignore them for eight hours a day and come back and expect them to be well-behaved and not have gotten into trouble,” she said.
Both Lancaster and Spradlin have had puppies enrolled in Animal Care Clinic’s Puppy Kindergarten.
Spradlin knew once Skipper went to puppy kindergarten he was more intelligent and less stubborn than the average dog.
“(Portuguese water dogs) are really smart; they love to please so they are a dream to work with,” she said.
She searched for an organization to work with and found Delta Society, which specializes in service and therapy animals.
“It was something that I was really drawn to because I was so convinced of the healing aspect in interacting with dogs. If anything is bothering you, any kind of health issues, for me personally being able to interact with a dog makes me feel so much better,” Spradlin said.
Guide Dogs of America
Lancaster was first interested in GDA because of her passion for dogs and the impact that guide dogs have on someone else’s world.
Because Rio is training to be a guide dog, he needs to be exposed to as many different environments as possible. That is why Lancaster brings him to the classroom.
On the first day of class, students are introduced to the puppy.
“I tell them there are rules and that when I’m working, Rio is working. He is supposed to be lying there being inconspicuous and not being a bother and that’s what we are working towards,” she said.
After class and during breaks students enjoy coming up to pet Rio.
“They are very respectful and they help me help him grow up. It has been a community effort,” Lancaster said.
Rio travels, works and goes out to eat with his trainer, all part of his training. “Essentially he needs to learn what it’s like to accompany someone and be with them 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” she said.
When the dogs are 18-months-old they are brought back to GDA. Lancaster gets attached every time and it’s hard to give them back, but she knows it is for a good cause.
After the dogs have been trained for four to sixth months, they are paired with their new owner. The new companions spend another month at GDA training and bonding.
Lancaster said it is wonderful to hear from her dog’s new owners.
“It is just humbling. It also gives you warm fuzzies; it’s just such a wonderful gift.”
She plans to raise puppies for as long as possible.
“I can honestly say that being involved with puppy raising and involved with Guide Dogs of America has been one of the best things I’ve done with my life,” she said.
Skipper began his therapy work at the Delta Society which trains the dogs at both ends of the leash and requires a reevaluation every two years to make sure the dog can still provide quality care while still enjoying the work.
Skipper is registered for service in a complex environment which means he can handle unpredictable conditions particularly in hospitals and schools.
For his first three years of service, Skipper visited nursing and convalescent homes and developed a friendship with a woman named Erma. Spradlin said she likes to have a closer, one-on-one relationship with the people they visit.
“It’s just sheer joy, it makes me emotional,” she said of the experience. “It is just so heart warming. It is just such a beautiful exchange, pure love.”
After Erma passed away, Spradlin and Skipper shifted their focus to a younger group of people. Since December they have begun two new projects; one for the San Luis Obispo library system and the other working with a child from a homeless shelter.
Almost every week, Spradlin and Skipper go to local libraries as part of Reading Education Assistance Dogs. The R.E.A.D program focuses on the power that well-trained therapy dogs have on children’s reading skills.
“The dog isn’t going to correct them, the dog is relaxed loving to hear this child read to them,” she said. “It’s just a fun thing to do and it takes all the pressure off.”
Spradlin said that research has shown that therapy dogs help calm a struggling reader by lowering blood pressure and giving confidence a boost.
In the future Spradlin hopes more schools and hospitals will be more willing to let Skipper provide therapy.
“I guess if you are not a dog lover and you just don’t see the tremendous joy and goodwill, you don’t really realize the incredible impact that has for the population you are serving,” she said.
Students with the right environment for raising a dog can take part in either of these programs.
Spradlin emphasized the student must be a responsible dog owner. If the dog isn’t well trained she said the public will not have confidence and may not feel comfortable interacting with the canine.
A class isn’t a must but is preferred, “If you can do obedience training with a club or professional trainer that is the ideal,” she said. Otherwise, Delta Society and R.E.A.D have materials that can assist in training.
“It doesn’t take a lot once you learn some of the basic techniques. What it really takes is the relationship you build with your dog and the trust that your dog has for you,” Spradlin said.