Obedience is a key concept taught in Shippen Hall—not so much to the students enrolled in teacher education, counseling, social work, and criminal justice classes, but to a different species of student. Yahtzee, a Golden Retriever, is in training to be a seeing eye dog and has made the second floor of Shippen another home, said Dr. Andrea Malmont, assistant professor of teacher education.
Malmont is a puppy raiser with The Seeing Eye, a nonprofit that strives to “enhance the independence, dignity, and self-confidence of blind people” through the use of seeing eye dogs. Yahtzee is her eighth dog and has been making friends at Ship for more than a year. Although Yahtzee is trained to aid the blind, she’s also benefited students, faculty, and staff at her second home.
“She’s not a therapy dog, but she became therapy to others,” Malmont said. “The dogs bring civility.”
Yahtzee gets frequent visitors. Whether students fail a test, break up with a significant other, have roommate issues, or experience personal loss, the soulful Golden Retriever is there to comfort them, Malmont said.
In addition to Yahtzee’s constant presence, trained therapy dogs visit campus for student events through SU’s Counseling Center and also work with elementary students at Grace B. Luhrs University Elementary School during a weekly reading program.
The joy that the dogs provoke is just “cool and amazing,” Malmont said.
“Yahtzee has just become the norm. When students see her, they just have to let go. They need that feeling.”
SEEING ANOTHER PERSPECTIVE
Malmont has two of her own dogs and fostered rescue dogs in the past, but she wanted to do something more. “I was a special education teacher by profession and knew you could do a lot with dogs.”
She was drawn to The Seeing Eye—the oldest service school for the blind—because of its commitment to provide dignity and independence to the blind without breaking the bank. The organization provides highly trained canines to those in need for just $150, whereas dogs from other organizations can cost thousands of dollars, she said.
Puppy raisers receive their dogs at just seven weeks old and are tasked with “loving them and socializing them,” Malmont said. At about sixteen months old, the dogs return to The Seeing Eye for tests and kennel training, then spend time with a trainer. Just before the dog turns two, it’s placed in a new home with a blind person.
“The first thing you have to remember is that this is not your pet, and you can’t treat it as your pet,” she said. “You still love and cuddle them, but there’s a fundamental difference.”
For example, Malmont’s Pomeranian has the run of their house and jumps on the furniture. Yahtzee isn’t allowed. And, although Yahtzee joins Malmont at work, restaurants, concerts, and the beach, she must always obey strict rules—no barking, no chasing, no jerking, etc.
“You have to imagine what this is like if you’re blind,” she said. “Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it’s challenging. ...A lot of education goes into being a good ambassador for the program.”
Teaching the commands and potty training the dogs was challenging, but Tonya Minisci ’15 said the dogs’ ability to pick things up is remarkable. “Training them is amazing. Their temperament is amazing.”
Minisci initially filled out an application to be a 4-H puppy sitter, but instead received a congratulations letter from The Seeing Eye saying she was qualified to be a puppy raiser. She received Winter, a Golden Labrador, in 2014.
Although the responsibility seemed overwhelming at first, she said the puppy raisers have a great network through Facebook and by meeting monthly. This helps the pups and their raisers to socialize and learn from each other.
Laura Matthews ’09 first learned about The Seeing Eye when she started working at Villanova University. The organization had representation at a campus event that benefited the Special Olympics. “I went to a meeting and it brought back memories of being in 4-H as a child. I really like to help people, and I enjoy animals. I felt prepared to raise these dogs.”
Just as Ship has embraced Yahtzee, Matthews’ dogs have been welcome at Villanova with open arms. She had extra fun with her second dog on campus, aptly named Nova. Matthews blogged about Nova while she had her, and now shares her escapades with Nellie on Instagram using the hashtag #NellieFooFoo.
“I didn’t think I’d learn so much about blind people,” she said. “This has opened my eyes.”
Minisci said the biggest hurdle is giving up the pup. “The saddest day is the day they leave, but it’s a win-win situation,” she said. “If for any reason the dog doesn’t get through its training, we have the option to foster them. But, if they pass, someone who really needs them gets them.”
Although Matthews was well aware that she would need to return her pup, she said she didn’t dwell on it. She is on her third dog and said the reward far outweighs the heartache of giving them back. “By the time they leave, it’s their time to move on. You can tell they’re kind of bored,” she said. “It’s wild—it’s something they’re made to do.”
A SECOND CAREER
Not all dogs-in-training with The Seeing Eye get paired with a blind person. Some dogs don’t make it through the program for various reasons. Three of Malmont’s dogs were not suitable seeing eye dogs because of physical issues.
“If it’s a malformation, it can affect the dog’s gait, which could make a blind person think that the dog is pulling them a certain way,” she said.
In this case, the dogs can be sold for another service, such as police training, or they can be adopted. “I had a grad student who lost her daughter in a motorcycle acci-dent,” she said. “The dog I had at the time was drawn to her and would nap at her feet in class. ...She now has that dog because it was rejected from the program.”
Other dogs are chosen as breeders. The Seeing Eye has breeding down to a science and knows the genealogy of each dog, Matthews said. “Geneticists have been at The Seeing Eye since the 1960s or 1970s. When I say that these dogs are bred to do this, they truly are.”
Dotty is one such dog. The Golden Retriever had all the qualities to become a breeder, said her owner Helen Skiba-Powell. Skiba-Powell joined the local 4-H Club to puppy sit and applied to adopt a retired breeder. She puppy sat Malmont’s dogs in the past, and Dotty is actually Yahtzee’s aunt. Skiba-Powell expressed to Malmont her desire to do more with Dotty, who had earned her Canine Good Citizen certification.
Through Malmont’s connection with teacher education at Ship, Skiba-Powell and Dotty arranged to regularly visit with students at Grace B. Luhrs University Elementary School. Each Tuesday, the pair joins Konnie Serr’s first grade class. The children take turns reading to Dotty, who intently listens. “She’s a celebrity. She doesn’t judge them. She listens to them and accepts what she hears,” Skiba-Powell said.
Serr dedicates a corner of her room to their special guests where each student can privately read to Dotty and spend time with her. The exercise helps students build confidence and fluency in their reading, she said.
“Dotty gets their absolute undivided attention,” she said. “Just seeing their self-discipline is impressive.”
“The kids are very respectful of her,” Skiba-Powell said. “This also teaches them to be respectful, mindful of animals, and not to be afraid.”
And Dotty just eats it up. Skiba-Powell said she gets love, attention, hugs, kisses, and petting. “It’s a win all the way around.”
SENSE OF HOME
Dotty also has been invited to participate in the new Home@Ship program. Launched during the fall 2015 semester, the program aims to ease the transition for new students coming to Ship. Dr.
Michelle Olexa, director of SU’s Counseling Center, said one of the biggest draws for students is involving therapy dogs in the program.
For an hour a week, Home@Ship provides students with a chance to relax, meet new friends, learn about services that can help them succeed in school, and pet a pup or two. Olexa believes in the power of pet therapy. “It’s so powerful for these students to connect with an animal,” she said. “This is one of our best-attended outreach events. The dogs are the ‘get.’”
Skiba-Powell said Dotty brought the students together. “Dogs provide such an avenue for meeting people and starting conversations.”
Since 2003, Olexa has organized Pawsapalooza, bringing therapy dogs to campus at the end of the semester during finals week as both a stress reliever and to increase social connections. She once brought a dog to every residence hall on campus. “It’s so beneficial to students,” she said. “Their hearts are full again. They become carefree, happy, peaceful, and comforted.”
Pursuing a service dog or training a therapy dog takes a lot of responsibility, but the end result couldn’t be better. Malmont, Minisci, and Matthews said the most satisfying piece of The Seeing Eye program is witnessing their dogs in action once they complete training.
“They become part of your family,” Minisci said. “But seeing them in action is amazing.”
And in Olexa’s case, she strongly believes that, “Fur therapy makes almost everything better.”