Hartwick College celebrates 25 years raising Guiding Eyes for the Blind puppies

May 9—When Hartwick College seniors Serinah Palafox and Emily Kliment walk across the stage to accept their diplomas May 20, they won't be alone. Their Guiding Eyes for the Blind puppies Stitch and Imus will walk alongside them.

The two dogs joined four others on campus, and all but one are black Labrador Retrievers, Palafox said. Kathryn Schmidt trained Jada, Alexis Bickle trained Liam, a yellow Lab, Roselyn DuMerville trained Henry and Kaitlyn Montgomery trained Howard. Montgomery is also a senior, but will not cross the stage with Howard, as he is at guide dog school taking his entrance exam. Additional students volunteer to be dog-sitters if trainers need breaks from raising the puppies or need to focus on writing papers or studying for exams, Palafox said.

Kliment said her dog, Imus, leaves in August to see if he has what it takes to become a guide dog. She said she believes he will easily pass. Palafox and DuMerville also think their puppies will pass. Palafox said the last puppy she trained, Elijah, was disqualified for a medical condition, so she adopted him.

Palafox, president of the college's club, said her current dog, Stitch, is named in association with quilting, but he sometimes acts like the title character of the Disney film "Lilo and Stitch." She said if an organization or company donates $5,000 to Guiding Eyes for the Blind, they can name a dog. The college's club raised $5,000 in honor of the 25th anniversary, so students will be able to choose a name that represents Hartwick College. Stitch is the third Lab she has raised for the Guiding Eyes for the Blind while attending the college, she said. "It's definitely a learning experience," she said. "Each dog teaches you something different about how to raise a puppy."

Palafox said she decided to raise puppies after seeing one on campus her freshman year. DuMerville, a sophomore, said she joined the club after seeing Palafox with her puppy and said raising Hank has helped her as much as she's helped Hank.

"It helps my interpersonal skills," DuMerville said. "I'm a quiet person and this forces me to open up."

DuMerville said she is a campus tour guide and takes her dog on tours with her. One day a visually impaired person was on one of her tours with a cane, and DuMerville said she thought about how much she was helping by raising a guide dog. Raising the dogs have also opened the trainers' eyes to people with disabilities. Palafox said students attend a class where they are blindfolded and led around a course, to feel what it would be like for a blind person.

Palafox said the national organization trains Lab and German shepherd puppies to be guide dogs, but since German shepherds bark too much, Hartwick students only raise Lab puppies.

Students receive two-month-old puppies and raise them until they are about 20 months old, Palafox said. Throughout that time, students train the dogs to follow commands and attend biweekly puppy classes at St. James Episcopal Church with other local residents training guiding eye puppies, she said. They also teach the dogs not to respond when people try to give them treats or attention when they are working, Kliment said.

"Being on a college campus helps a lot," Kliment said. "They are exposed on a daily basis to stimuli they are supposed to ignore."

DuMerville said she took Henry to Niagara Falls last weekend on a trip and he rode on a boat. "He saw a baby for the first time and I was nervous what he might do," she said. He was calm and wasn't nervous and touched the baby's hand with his nose, she said.

Palafox said the Hartwick group is helping SUNY Oneonta and a college in North Carolina start their own Guiding Eyes for the Blind clubs on campus.

"The biggest question we get is how can we give up the dog after having it for so long," Palafox said. "We are giving someone else independence by raising the puppy. Once you see that, it's so much easier to give the dog" to the organization to complete the dog's training.

Vicky Klukkert, staff writer, can be reached at vklukkert@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7221.