Delaware Hayes High School junior Alicia Rittenour recently completed her role as a puppy-raiser for Pilot Dogs Inc.
Pilot Dogs trains guide dogs for the legally blind.
Rittenour’s canine “student,” Zoey, will now begin the next level of her training which means that she will no longer live with Rittenour.
Rittenour, who has raised Zoey since she was just 8 weeks old, said she will miss her but “I just have to keep in mind that it’s for a good cause and she’ll be doing something great and that I helped with that.”
According to the Pilot Dogs Inc. website, Zoey will spend the next five months in formal training, where she will learn to navigate the “conditions the blind may encounter once returned home with their pilot dogs.” After she has completed formal training, Zoey will be paired with a blind individual with whom she will undergo four more weeks of training before she finally graduates as a fully trained guide dog.
Rittenour became a puppy-raiser for the Pilot Dog program as part of the process of earning her Girl Scout Gold Award. This award “represents the highest achievement in Girl Scouts,” according to girlscouts.org and requires that scouts perform a project that will benefit their communities in some way. Rittenour said she chose the Pilot Dog program because “I really like animals anyways so it was just a good opportunity.”
Rittenour said that working with Zoey has taught her a lot. “I have learned how hard it is to raise a dog,” she said. “I learned how fun they are just to watch them grow and play with them.”
During her time with Zoey, Rittenour focused on teaching her the basic skills that she would need to be a guide dog, including: always walking on her owner’s left side; sitting, laying and walking on command; and performing certain types of turns.
Rittenour also worked on socializing Zoey by bringing her just about everywhere she went — including cross country meets, First Fridays and the fair — so that Zoey would get used to noisy, crowded environments. This socialization is very important to raising a successful guide dog, according to pilotdogs.org, since “regardless of the quality of breeding, a pup has little chance of becoming a guide dog unless it is raised in a home and accustomed to playing with children, meeting strangers, having the opportunity to be near traffic and go through an obedience course.”
Rittenour took her responsibility to socialize and train Zoey seriously and the pair attended obedience training twice a week during the summer through Rittenour’s 4-H club. The training continued until the moment that Rittenour had to say goodbye. “She just recently got really good at the stay and come,” said Rittenour with pride.
Rittenour said she recommends volunteering as a puppy-raiser to anyone who is interested. More information about becoming a puppy-raiser for Pilot Dogs can be found at http://www.pilotdogs.org/become-puppy-raiser.
Megan Neary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.