Lead dogs for the blind trained on campus

If you have ever seen a dog sitting in the middle of the Oakland Center, chances are it is a Leader Dog in training. The dogs have been trained at Oakland University for many years in order to someday become someone’s eyes.

Oakland University is the closest university campus to Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester, and it provides an ideal atmosphere for Leader Dogs that are being trained.

“Colleges campuses are kind of a unique setting,” Rachelle Kniffen, a marketing specialist for Leader Dogs for the Blind, said.

Leader Dogs need to navigate well.  The curved walkways, assortment of buildings and the classrooms contained in those buildings help the dog learn these navigational skills.

According to Kniffen, these dogs are learning many things just by walking around campus, concepts such as walking in a straight line or distinguishing different types of doors.

“The dogs have to learn to walk in a straight line, and if you ever take your dog for a walk on a loose leash they tend not to (walk straight),” Kniffen said. “They tend to wander left and wander right.”

Crowded areas like the Oakland Center can provide a lot of excess noise, music and movement, all things the dog cannot be distracted by.

“It’s a wide variety to expose them (the dogs) to,” Melissa DeGrandis, a senior communication major who volunteers at Leader Dogs for the Blind, said.

The Leader Dogs roaming the campus are typically there with Leader Dog trainers, not the volunteer “puppy raisers.”

Some are there with their owners. OU senior Dave Barber, a social work major, is blind and uses a German shepherd guide dog named Mr. Ford for travel.  Mr. Ford assists Barber around campus.

On the first day of classes each semester, Barber instructs his classmates on interactions with Mr. Ford.

“The first day of class, where all of us are new to each other, and I am introducing myself to the group — this is the time when I introduce Mr. Ford to the group,” Barber said. “I introduce Mr. Ford, describe what dog guide school he is from and the ground rules pertaining to others interacting with Ford.”

Leader Dogs aren’t always working, and they do get to have their fun. When the dog is not in its harness, it is not working.

“When a Leader Dog guide is not in harness, he is just being a pet,” Barber said.  “When off harness, it is OK for the dog to have fun and play.”

Living in Rochester where Leader Dogs for the Blind is headquartered, there is a chance of having a run in with a guide dog.

There are specific rules to follow when meeting a harnessed dog.According to Kniffen, the first rule is to not touch a dog in harness — always ask first.

Some guide dogs can easily become distracted so if the person says no, you should not take it personally.

And don’t talk to the dog, because guide dog may become distracted by eye contact.

“Talk to the person,” Kniffen said. “People will have a tendency to talk toward the dog. So talk to the person, address the person —don’t address the dog.”

Leader Dogs for the Blind is a nonprofit organization that engages over 230 volunteers on their campus, and it is easy for students of any age to get involved.

The organization is always looking for puppy raisers who can care for and train a dog for their first year of life.

To get involved or to learn more visit www.leaderdog.org