Cornellians this semester have actively participated in the long and arduous process to become dog raisers, despite challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Guiding Eyes at Cornell began for undergraduates in 2011, and over a decade later, its cohort of students continues to raise puppies into sight-seeing dogs for the visually impaired. Cornell’s chapter works alongside the College of Veterinary Medicine and Ithaca College students.
Due to pandemic restrictions, Guiding Eyes had to cancel their annual bake sale fundraiser, stunting their funding for the Cornell chapter and national organization.
Fundraising Chair Shefali Janorkar ’22 adapted to these challenges by creating social media fundraisers, and Janorkar said that the board remains optimistic as Cornell moves to COVID-19 alert level green.
“We just don’t get the engagement we used to when things are virtual, but we hope that will change this year,” Janorkar said. “We have a lot of ideas planned.”
With Cornell permitting more in-person events, Guiding Eyes aims to host pet-a-puppy events and collaborate with other clubs. For Valentine’s Day, the organization sold cards adorned with pictures of the dogs; their “I LABRA-DORE YOU” design was a top seller.
Despite the adorable puppies, the process to raise and train a seeing-eye dog presents many challenges.
When students first join the organization, they must attend events to accumulate points before they can become dog sitters.
A dog sitter is similar to a babysitter. The sitter is responsible for watching the dogs assigned to student raisers, who train a specific puppy full-time, while those students are in class. Becoming a puppy raiser requires the greatest level of involvement with the organization.
Dog raisers must complete a thorough certification process and workshop with the national organization. After the raiser has completed training, the organization’s headquarters will send a puppy assignment. The raiser then collects a puppy, roughly seven weeks old, from the organization’s headquarters in Yorktown Heights, New York. They return to Cornell with the trainee in tow.
The resulting cohort of puppies often interact and play together. The sitters and raisers host holiday parties and birthday celebrations with other Guiding Eyes puppies in the Finger Lakes Region.
After more than a year of training, the dogs are assigned to a visually impaired person somewhere within the United States. A graduation ceremony takes place when the dog is officially united to its new owner. Guiding Eyes members look forward to the celebration throughout their time in the organization. Many students hold onto keepsakes of the event to serve as reminders for why they continue to raise dogs.
The process requires dogged determination on the part of the raisers, who may repeat the raising cycle for years, some even raising two to three dogs at a time.
For Zoe Weissbach ’23, Guiding Eyes has greatly improved her college experience.
“Dogs have always been a savior for me,” said Weissbach, who is raising her dog Alec. “Getting to work with [Alec] has helped build my character. It teaches you to have your mean mom voice and stand up for yourself.”
President Alyssa Roorda ’23 has been involved with Guiding Eyes since she was a child. Her family, who lives 30 minutes south of Cornell’s Ithaca campus, raised dogs as she was growing up.
Roorda is now raising her dog Yacht, who she has kept for a year longer than anticipated.
“I only planned on having him for the summer,” Roorda said. “He came home with me and became a part of the family. You don’t plan for what type of dog you’re gonna get, but then you watch them change and mature, and everything comes full circle.”
Roorda anticipates that Yacht will go back to Guiding Eyes in April or March to be matched with a permanent owner, achieving the ultimate goal of the program.