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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

May 30, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

Life & Culture

Guiding Eyes for the Blind handlers form bonds with dogs

Sophomore Jack Ficcardi grips the leash of Aura, his yellow labrador retriever, with a tight hold. She looks up to him and sits down at his request. She follows him across campus and remains quiet under his desk in class.

This is nothing new for Ficcardi. He will raise Aura for another six months until she is matched with a new owner to do guide work. Though she will be matched soon, Jack and Aura’s bond is still strong.

“I think it’s the work you put into it,” Ficcardi said. “I have been taking care of Aura since she was two months old. I’ve been the one to cuddle her, feed her, take her to the veterinarian … Aura is my best friend, and it’s so great to see her learn and realize her potential.”

When Aura leaves him to work as a guide, he knows that she will be doing what she has been trained to do. While the separation will be bittersweet, Jack plans on raising another dog through Guiding Eyes for the Blind — this time, as the president of the college’s chapter of GEB.

Lauren Reightler, president of GEB, said they may only raise the dogs for a short while, but the bonds that they create last a long time — a lifetime.

Guiding Eyes for the Blind is a national nonprofit organization that helps train service dogs for people with vision disabilities to improve their daily lives. The owners raise, sit and match a dog to an owner after it is trained for service. The organization teaches pups commands from as young as five months and trains them for challenges they may face with their future owner. Freshman Sam Epstein, who recently got a trainer certificate, said there are currently about 30 certified handlers and dog raisers in the Ithaca College chapter of GEB.

This semester, five labrador puppies are being trained on campus. Ficcardi said the connections owners form with their dogs benefit owners and other students on campus.

“To blind people, it gives them mobility they otherwise wouldn’t have access to,” Ficcardi said. “It creates a special bond for the person with their dog. It not only helps their future owner, but I feel like it boosts morale and creates a positive atmosphere around campus.”

The current president of GEB, junior Lauren Reightler, said connecting with her pup, Wisdom, in her sophomore year allowed her to look at guide dogs differently. Since she first joined GEB, Reightler said, her expectations for what she would get out of her participation have grown exponentially.

“Originally, everyone had the same ideas that I had, and we all just wanted to help others,” she said. “We really cared about something bigger than ourselves, which was raising these dogs. Now, it’s something more personal to me. … I see each dog differently. I see the potential they have.”

Reightler said the organization strives to create an outlet for students who wouldn’t have this opportunity at other schools. The organization educates students about common myths and misconceptions about guide dogs and addresses them straighton, including during public events, like Puppy Meet and Greets and Dog ToyMaking Workshops.

“We can advocate for people who have service dogs and explain to them that while they can come and pet our dogs, but they shouldn’t ask to pet an actual service dog because it can put the person who needs the dog in danger,” Reightler said.

Reightler said the dogs in training are helping people beyond the Ithaca community. Wisdom, for example, is now a guide in New Mexico, but Reightler said she still says in touch with Wisdom and its current owner.

“Her [owner] talks to me all the time and tells me how the dog I raised helps her,” she said.

Once a student has decided to get involved in Guiding Eyes for the Blind, they go through a process before getting their certification license: Every Monday night for several weeks, the student must attend a puppy class to learn how to raise pups and teach them to become a guide. Following the puppy classes are certification classes, where students shadow other raisers and become sitters to prepare for their experiences with their dogs.

Epstein will be raising a puppy this summer. She said her passion for animals will push her to build a strong connection with her dog.

“I love animals and always want them to be a part of my life,” she said. “I love that this club involves animals but also brings awareness to how people should act around service dogs. I think it’s really important for people to respect their jobs because they are working, too.”

Colin Barrett can be reached at cbarrett@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @colinb333555