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Seeing Eye club members talk toils and joys of raising puppies

Rutgers University Seeing Eye Puppy Raising Club members run through commands to guide dogs in training before they are assigned to their owners. – Photo by Michelle Klejmont

Abbey Hartman cried for two days after being separated from a puppy that she became attached to as a sitter. These tears, however, turned into tears of joy soon when she reminded herself that the puppy would help a visually impaired person take control of his or her life. These emotions have made a comeback as Hartman now prepares her current dog Nestle for the same.

“I can imagine how hard it will be with Nestle,” Hartman said. “But there is nothing but pride in my heart.” 

Hartman, a Rutgers Business School junior, is the treasurer of the Rutgers University Seeing Eye Puppy Raising Club.

The organization trains puppies to be Seeing Eye dogs for the visually and physically impaired. 

Wes Darcy, a senior in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, joined the club when he was a first-year student. 

As an animal science major and avid dog lover, Darcy said what brought him to the club was the puppies. 

He said the biggest perk is knowing that he is doing something great for someone else.

“I always tell myself I am essentially giving someone else the gift of sight,” Darcy said.

The RU-SEPRC is Rutgers’s own student-run division of the national nonprofit organization, The Seeing Eye, Inc. 

Not everyone in the club gets the opportunity to raise a puppy, Hartman said.

A student must attend at least three club meetings and pass a written assessment before they are allowed to be a sitter.

Darcy said he was a sitter for three years before he was given the responsibility of raising a puppy, Chase, this February. 

Makenzie Bordenabe, president of RU-SEPRC, said the raisers are the “mommies and daddies” of the puppies. These members are in charge of daily care, vet visits and teaching commands.

Bordenabe, a School of Environmental and Biological Science senior, said the club also makes sure the dogs are properly exposed to different places.

The sitters, or the “aunts and uncles,” take care of the puppies at times when the raisers cannot due to exams or other engagements, Bordenabe said.

Raisers can house their dogs in either off-campus homes or in the Newell and Starkey apartments on Cook campus, Hartman said.

Dogs that are Seeing Eye puppies have identification cards and wear bandanas and vests.

The puppies can be brought all over campus, in every Rutgers building, except for residence halls, science labs and dining halls. They are even allowed on the buses, Bordenabe said.

“Since we have access to all the buildings, they’re allowed to come to class with us, which helps them be with their person all the time — bonding and being exposed to an everyday routine,” Bordenabe said. 

Since the club has existed for 15 years now, Bordenabe said the professors and bus drivers are usually compliant with allowing the dogs to be there.

Hartman said her fondest experience with the club was the moment she met Nestle, the puppy she was assigned to raise. 

“When I saw him for the first time coming out of the van, I knew it would be hard to give him back,” Hartman said. 

She is originally from Indiana and was searching to get involved with an organization when she came to Rutgers. She learned about RU-SEPRC at the Rutgers University Involvement Fair.

At the first meeting, Hartman saw how cute and well behaved the dogs were. She also learned how much work the organization puts into improving other people’s lives.

“There’s no other way that you can truly change someone’s life,” Hartman said. “Donating money to a cause helps temporarily, whereas these dogs change people’s lives altogether.” 

Aside from people constantly asking her if they can pet Nestle, Hartman said she does sometimes receive backlash for being a raiser.

“People will say things like, ‘How dare you make this dog work and wear a choke collar,” Hartman said. “When in reality, the dogs are actually happy working, and they wear training collars, not choke collars.” 

Hartman responds to such comments by reassuring people that the dogs are treated well. 

“Our puppies love working,” Bordenabe said. “They get to go to places and do things with us that normal pets don’t get to do, and I swear they realize it.”

Darcy said the hardest part about raising Chase was that the puppies were all under a medical quarantine when Darcy first received him.

If a puppy gets sick, Darcy said, the other puppies in the club are temporarily quarantined to prevent the illness from spreading. This is not a normal occurrence, he said.

For four months, Darcy could not take Chase anywhere beyond his apartment or backyard.

But once the quarantine was over and Darcy was allowed to bring Chase to his classes, he noticed a change in the puppy’s behavior.

“Once he got to go out and play, it made him a lot happier,” Darcy said. 

Bordenabe said a common misconception is that working dogs are not allowed to be regular dogs, or that they are not loved.

“Countless times, people have gone up to my puppy and said ‘Oh, I’m so sorry you can’t play or be a dog,’ which is very false,” Bordenabe said.

In a place called the “backyard,” the puppies are allowed to play and unwind, she said.

Bordenable said she loves the RU-SEPRC puppies more than anything. 

“My dog is literally my left hand,” she said. “It’s funny, but he’s kind of my best friend.”

Bordenabe said the blind or disabled people who get the dogs in the future feel “100 times more love” for the dogs than they do and want them to be able to run and play and “be a dog” when they are not working.

The Seeing Eye puppies are with their trainer for seven to 14 months, Bordenabe said. This follows four to six months with a certified Seeing Eye instructor.

After that is the town walk, which Bordenabe said is similar to a little graduation ceremony before they are matched with their person. The dogs and their new owners spend four weeks on campus bonding and learning to work together.

Nestle, now 11 weeks old, is the first puppy Hartman has raised for the club, but as a sitter, she formed close bonds with some of the other dogs and found it difficult to give them away. 

Bordenabe will be parting from her dog, Figaro, come December, and she expects it to be bittersweet. 

The first dog she raised, Karl, is currently guiding out in Wisconsin. 

“I know Karl is giving someone independence right now, and I helped do that,” Bordenabe said. “I know Figaro can do the same thing. They’re my little heroes, and the best heartbreaks I could ask for.”

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