For Cal Poly students, it is not uncommon to encounter a puppy training to become a guide dog on campus. Identifiable by its green Guide Dogs for the Blind jacket, a puppy in training patiently sleeps during its raiser’s classes, strolls across Dexter Lawn and attends weekly Poly Pups meetings.
Amidst nationwide stay-at-home orders, however, this typical method of training has completely transformed, according to Poly Pups president and animal science sophomore Jenna Reimer.
Reimer said raising a puppy to become a guide dog is not just teaching good house manners, but rather training the puppy to safely navigate a distraction-filled world.
“It’s really getting them out to experience the world because most dogs don’t do what ours do,” Reimer said.
Reimer said the biggest challenge of raising a puppy to become a guide dog while quarantining has been the lack of public outings.
“The giant carts at Costco could be scary to some dogs,” Reimer said. “When they become guide dogs, they need to be accustomed to that and not get scared or nervous.”
Reimer said puppies in training, who were previously accustomed to going everywhere with their raiser, will face many obstacles upon returning to normal life. While a puppy in training may have been able to navigate busy streets and avoid enticing distractions before, raisers may need to slowly reintroduce the skills post-coronavirus.
Reimer is currently residing in San Luis Obispo and raising Churro, a yellow labrador retriever. Puppies are not able to go out in public until they are four months old, the typical age where they have received all necessary shots.
Since Churro turned four months old on May 9, Reimer frequently takes him on hikes and walks. However, these small outings have posed challenges for the young puppy-in-training. When Reimer began raising Churro during the beginning of spring break and California’s stay-at-home order, Churro was a mere 11 weeks old.
Churro, who has not been exposed to many other dogs or people, becomes very excited when encountering new faces on walks. This behavior is typical for puppies Churro’s age, however, Churro is training to become a working guide dog.
Since Poly Pups meetings have transitioned to a virtual format for spring quarter, Reimer does not have a controlled environment to practice basic skills with Churro. In-person Poly Pups meetings would have allowed Churro to practice walking past puppies who are accompanied by puppy raisers. Reimer said such controlled training situations offer a positive experience for the puppies and reinforce proper skills.
“As a puppy raiser, you want to do everything you can to give your dogs the skills they need to become successful,” Reimer said.
Additionally, Churro would have the opportunity to work with other handlers, Poly Pups club members. Currently, Poly Pups has 20 active members and three puppies in training. This practice would familiarize Churro with a variety of people and create a more well-rounded guide dog.
While puppies younger than four months old would not have the opportunity to attend Poly Pups meetings regardless, the transition from life under quarantine will still pose challenges.
Poly Pups vice president and art and design senior Niamh Horn is currently raising Effie, a 12-week-old Labrador and Golden Retriever cross-breed born March 9. Since Effie is too young for public outings, Horn said she would typically invite friends over to socialize with the puppy in a controlled environment.
This socialization is not possible during the coronavirus pandemic, so Effie is not accustomed to seeing humans aside from Horn’s family. Horn said Effie might be overwhelmed by the presence of others once the shelter-in-place order is lifted.
While Horn and Effie spend a majority of the day together, Horn said it is important to remember that the puppy needs her alone time. Typically, this free time would be built into a puppy’s schedule. For example, a puppy raiser might choose to leave the puppy at home in its crate while making a quick run to the store.
Since Horn is no longer making frequent outings, she has become more mindful of creating time away from Effie. Horn said it is important to remember that both experiences are necessary for proper development.
“It’s remembering they need their own time alone as well as with you,” Horn said.
Not only have stay-at-home orders impacted puppies in training, but social distancing guidelines have also posed many challenges for current guide dog users.
Reimer said some people forget that guide dogs are not trained to abide by social distancing guidelines. Guide dogs are trained to keep their handler on a safe route.
“The dog doesn’t know, ‘Oh, let me make a six-foot buffer,’” Reimer said. “It’s the sighted person’s job to make sure they have that six feet of distance.”
According to the Guide Dogs for the Blind website, puppies in training learn to lead a person in a straight line, avoid obstacles in their path and stop for changes in elevation. Guide dogs cannot read traffic signals or determine the route to a new destination.
Reimer said some people have become angry with guide dog users who are unknowingly unable to abide by social distancing guidelines. As a result of sighted people’s frustrations, Reimer said many guide dog users have reverted back to using a cane while out in public.
Reimer said she hopes social distancing guidelines will spark a conversation about the capabilities of guide dogs. While guide dogs are working animals who have many been trained for various situations, they are still animals and cannot understand all social norms.
Poly Pups will continue raising puppies in training, despite the challenges brought by social distancing. Reimer said witnessing the unique bond between humans and working animals makes all the hard work worth it.
“It’s not just giving someone a pet dog that they can love, because even doing that makes a difference in someone’s life,” Reimer said. “But it’s really about giving them their freedom back, and the opportunity to go places more comfortably and feel confident that they have someone there all the time looking out for them.”