GENEVA â Students come to Hobart and William Smith Colleges to soak up the knowledge the liberal arts institution offers.
A few four-legged friends on campus are getting an education there as well.
Students who are part of the HWS chapter of Guiding Eyes are raising puppies that â hopefully â will one day help visually impaired people safely get around their communities and homes.
The HWS program was started in 2017 by seniors Katie Valicenti and Liz Anderson. Valicenti said she was inspired to start a program at HWS after seeing her twin sister, Jessie, become a Guiding Eyes dog trainer at Ithaca College.
âSo many places and colleges are involved,â said Valicenti, a senior from Horseheads in Chemung County. âWhy canât it be something that we can do here?â
So she and Anderson, who hails from Allentown, Pa., started a chapter.
While the dogs arenât yet allowed in the on-campus dorms, Valicenti and Anderson were able to get established in one of the theme houses HWS owns as part of the Collegesâ alternative residential living facilities. After applying, Guiding Eyes was awarded the Farm House on St. Clair Street for the 2017-18 school year, and theyâre back in the house again this school year.
Everyone who lives in the house must agree to having the dogs live there as well, Valicenti noted.
Under the program, students take the canines just about anywhere on campus and off as part of their early training toward becoming guide dogs.
Guiding Eyes, which is based in Yorktown Heights, Westchester County, is just one of a handful of accredited guide-dog organizations in the country. The HWS students are affiliated with the Guiding Eyes Wayne County Region organization, which provides volunteers with six hours of training, said Cindy Swift, the regional coordinator.
Valicenti said two dogs, Lacy and Nalani, have already undergone puppy training by the HWS chapter, while a third dog, Odyssey, is currently being trained.
âWeâre hoping (for) numbers four and five by the first of the year,â she said.
Swift said a component of the volunteer training is making sure people understand what theyâre getting into.
âItâs a huge commitment,â she said, noting that trainers will keep the dogs â either labs or German shepherds â for 14 to 18 months. They get them from Guiding Eyesâ downstate headquarters at 8 weeks old. Valicenti calls the Yorktown Heights site âdog heaven.â
Students must ensure the dogs are taken care of during semester or summer breaks, Swift noted. A team of dog-sitters at HWS and in the region are available if the principle puppy trainers canât take their animals with them, she added.
Swift emphasized that these trainers are not providing the training needed to become guide dogs. Rather, they serve as a bridge to the next phase of the petâs life as a guide dog.
âWe ask volunteers to teach them house manners and some basic obedience, and to socialize the pups,â she said, adding that trainers are asked to bring their dogs in for additional weekly classes hosted by Guiding Eyes. Later, trainers can attend the classes biweekly as the dogs age.
Swift said the college campus is a great place for dogs to socialize, noting the frequent interactions with humans through classes, events and home settings.
â(The Colleges provide) an invaluable socialization opportunity,â she said. âIt just complements our regional volunteers so well.â
âYou definitely learn to put them into your daily routine,â said Valicenti, explaining students take the dogs to the library, classes and even the dining hall.
Anderson said in an HWS press release that âexposing a potential guide dog to a college campus is very beneficial to them, as it gives them lots of practice with socialization, settling through class and walking with distractions.â
However, despite all the best intentions of the volunteers, not all these dogs will end up assisting visually impaired people.
Guiding Eyes is looking for something Swift calls âintelligent disobedience.â For example, a dog not letting its owner walk into traffic or a similar safety hazard.
If theyâre deemed incapable of becoming guide dogs, some will end up working in areas such as bomb detection for police agencies. Some become therapy dogs.
âWe call it a âcareer change,â â she said.
Some animals, said Swift, end up as pets â and great ones at that because of the training theyâve received.
Valicenti said one of the biggest challenges puppy-raisers face is letting go when the time comes to turn the dogs over to Guiding Eyes, where they will undergo testing to determine if they have the chops to become guide dogs.
âItâs been emotional both times, but itâs also rewardingâ knowing the pups may have a future assisting the visually impaired, she said.
âItâs really cool watching how they impact other people,â she said. âThese dogs want to be helping.â