Future Guide Dog is a Sight to See, but Not Pet
The most challenging part of being around Sapphire is that you are not allowed to pet her.
Sapphire’s shiny black coat, bright brown eyes and sweet disposition are enough to make anyone who loves dogs stop to ask.
However, UNG sophomore Britni Esson must politely say, “Sorry, she is working right now.”
Esson, 19, is raising Sapphire for the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind.
You may spot Esson walking around campus with Sapphire, who wears a bright yellow vest which advertises the Guide Dog Foundation.
“I decided that I wanted to apply, and what I thought would be a long process was short,” Esson said.
After researching and completing an online application to raise a puppy, Esson received an email within a few days to attend a “pre-puppy” meeting, which gives more specific details about the program.
After one decides they want to raise a puppy, they must attend at least two meetings where they interact with other dogs. Esson travels to Athens for her monthly Foundation meetings.
Raisers housebreak the puppies, teach them basic commands and manners and expose them to different environments. Behavior in public is the most important aspect to teach a dog, and according to Esson, obedience is the easy part of raising a puppy.
One part of Esson’s raising responsibilities is to teach Sapphire many simple commands, such as “sit,” “stay,” “down” or the occasional “leave it.”
While the puppies are young the raisers allow them to dictate how far ahead they will walk so the dogs are not timid. Around 4 months old the raiser will begin giving the puppy more boundaries on the leash and start teaching the puppy to walk ahead on the left side.
Esson uses what is known as leash correction when Sapphire does not do something correctly.
“You use a quick little tug and release, or a yank and release to get their attention if they are not following through with a command,” Esson said.
Initially, the dogs are allowed to be petted and socialize with people, especially people with baggy clothing or big facial hair.
“It teaches them to not be timid,” Esson said.
As the dogs grow older, they learn to differentiate between vest and non-vest environments.
“They learn the vest means it’s time to be serious, I have to work, and I cannot jump on people,” Esson said.
Between 14 and 18 months old, the dogs are sent to the Guide Dog Foundation headquarters in Smithtown, N.Y., where the training staff builds on the foundation the puppy raisers have given to the dogs in order to prepare the dogs for lives of assistance.
Sapphire, a purebred black Labrador, came to Esson at 13 weeks old last April.
It was puppy love at first sight.
“I was so happy, and she was so happy to get out of the transport van,” Esson said. “She explored a lot when she got home.”
Sapphire’s new home was accompanied by a new way of life.
“She can’t be on furniture or the bed, and she has certain toys to play with,” Esson said.
Guide dogs are not allowed to play with stuffed animals, balls, or Frisbees. Some toys are bad for digestion, and when dogs begin to seek out toys like those mentioned above, they are difficult to retrain.
Also, because many blind-handlers live in big cities where there is a lot of movement, the dogs must be trained not to run after objects.
While off-duty, Sapphire is allowed to play with other dogs, people and her toys. She is allowed to only wander about fenced-in areas; otherwise she must be on a leash for her own safety.
“She’s pretty calm, she doesn’t have the normal demeanor of a lab,” Esson said. “She’s not the type of dog where she has to release energy.”
People often approach Esson expressing that they would love to raise a puppy if they could.
“You can,” Esson said. “It gets easier as it goes.”
Esson pays out-of-pocket for Sapphire’s food and toys, amounting to approximately $40 per month.
The Foundation pays for all veterinary care and equipment.
Aside from carrying around her backpack for school, Esson also totes a bag specifically for Sapphire’s needs that contains treats, dinner, a water bottle, and many plastic baggies.
Sapphire follows Esson’s daily routine. Each time she moved from one spot to the next, she would bring Sapphire along with her, Esson said.
Esson will take Sapphire outside after she wakes up, and then it is time for breakfast before school.
The most challenging part of raising Sapphire is “making sure she doesn’t eat things she’s not supposed to,” Esson said.
Rather than reward Sapphire with treats, she must be praised verbally.
“She has progressed so much. She had no idea where she was, what she was doing. Now she knows how to sit through class and how long to ride in the car,” Esson said.
When Esson drives to school, Sapphire rides along, lying on the passenger floorboard. According to Esson, “she’ll sit up and peek out the window” when they arrive at the parking deck.
Then it’s on to class. While Esson is taking a quiz or listening to a lecture, Sapphire is by her side.
Sapphire is also the only student who can get away with sleeping in class.
“She does a lot of sleeping,” Esson said. “It’s really interesting. Toward the end of class she has whined, like, ‘OK, let’s go.’”
Aside from school, Sapphire attends church and shops at the grocery store.
Such exposure gives Esson the opportunity to explain to the public what Sapphire’s role is.
“It’s made me more aware of the needs for the disabled and the rights that they have,” Esson said.
Soon, Sapphire will be leaving Esson for her formal trainings.
Sapphire and Esson have only been separated once, during a two-week period over Christmas break when Sapphire went back to Athens after going into heat. Esson missed her during that time but was at ease knowing that Sapphire would eventually be back by her side.
“I was so lonely because she wasn’t there. It was heartbreaking for just two weeks,” Esson said.
This next separation will be a permanent one.
“I’m going to be very sad, and I’m going to miss her. I know her personality, her routine. It’s going to be bittersweet,” Esson said.
Sapphire, who recently turned one year old, is scheduled to leave Esson during April to work with trainers.
She will “either breed and create more puppies for the Foundation, or she will be put in a good home where somebody really needs her,” Esson said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”
Fortunately for Esson, the other members who attend her group meetings assure her the process becomes easier. For those already on their third or fourth dog, they are used to saying goodbye.
The Foundation hosts an event called Celebration Sunday, where the new owner of a guide dog can choose to meet with the individual who raised their dog. This opportunity is the culmination of a raiser’s year of hard work and dedication, where they are finally able to see the fruits of their labor.
“It’s very rewarding knowing that she’s going to be a part of something big,” Esson said.
Although Sapphire will soon be leaving, Esson will not spend too much time mourning her departure. She is already planning for what comes next.
“I’ve learned how to teach a dog obedience,” Esson said. “I know I want to take the tactics I’ve learned and apply it to my future dogs.”
Whether Esson decides on raising another puppy or trying her hand at hosting a dog for breeding, there are certainly opportunities which the Foundation provides for anyone willing to volunteer.
To find out more information about the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, please visit http://www.guidedog.org/.