As she greets you with a smile, you’ll never guess what’s under Margaret Swigert’s desk.
It’s Gabby, an eight-month-old rough coat collie Swigert is training to be a guide dog for the blind.
Swigert – a newly hired secretary for UTD’s office of undergraduate studies – is currently training her third pup since she started volunteering in October 2000 as a puppy raiser for Southeastern Guide Dogs (SEGD).
Puppy raisers, like Swigert, are volunteers who receive a pup when they are nine-to-12 weeks old and teach them proper house manners, basic obedience and socialization until they are about one year old.
“They’re your little shadow,” Swigert said. “They go everywhere – to work, on airplanes, to the grocery stores, movies.”
After seeing a Walt Disney television program as a little girl, Swigert said she knew she wanted to train guide dogs later in life. An article in The Dallas Morning News requesting volunteer puppy raisers for SEGD in 2000 rekindled that initial interest.
“Puppy raisers provide the foundation for these puppies by exposing them to every possible situation that they may encounter once they are working guides,” Swigert said. “(UTD) is affording Gabby the opportunity to not only be exposed to an office environment but also to be around a large group of people of all ages and ethnic origins.”
Swigert said she and other local trainers took their guide-dogs-in-training on a group outing to ride the DART light rail in January.
“(Riding DART helped the) dogs realize that although they are with other dogs, they still have to realize their still working,” Swigert said.
To help the dogs distinguish between play and work time, they wear guide-dog vests during the part of the day they are training. When the dogs reach 10-months-old, they can’t be petted while they’re wearing their vest, Swigert added.
Swigert said the dogs must learn to recognize locations that their blind owners may need to find. Then the dogs start to associate the words with the locations and can find them on their own, she added.
When the dogs leave their volunteer trainers, they go back to the S EGD facility in Palmetto, Fla., for four-to-six months of professional training.
Training is a costly process and 30 percent of the dogs don’t make it through, Swigert said.
“A fully trained guide dog costs over $28,000 and they are given to the blind at absolutely no charge,” Swigert said. “To be involved in the process of this gift is unbelievable.”
But, in the end, letting go is the hardest part, Swigert said.
“After raising the dog since it was just a puppy and spending all of your time with them, you become so attached,” Swigert said. “But you have to keep reminding yourself why you are doing this and that is to provide independence for the blind. There is someone who needs that dog so much more than you do.”
“This is good exposure for students (on) how one acts and behaves towards working animals,” said Michael Coleman, dean of undergraduate studies and associate provost. “This is just another little thing that enriches the life of the university.”