Guiding Students & Pups to a Better Future: Training Puppies for The Blind

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Martine Savageau knows there is something extraordinary about raising puppies to help the blind. It takes a special dog to make the journey from puppy to companion, but it also takes an exceptional trainer to take the puppy on that journey. Savageau has dedicated nearly 25 years to being part of Guide Dogs for the Blind, Inc. (GDB), and is now sharing her talents with young trainers-in-the-making.

In addition to her work with seeing eye dogs as a volunteer and as a qualified dog trainer, she has experience with therapy animals, guide dogs, and search and rescue animals through organizations such as Friends of the Animals (now Nuzzles & Co.) and Willow Creek Pet Center. She is also a teacher with the Salt Lake City School District, with a specialty in Agricultural Education through the District’s Career and Technical Center.

Through her work with GDB and with the support of District leadership, in 2005, Savageau created the Companion Animal Science Program, allowing high school students to earn credit while training puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind, Inc. The hands-on program was the first in the country to allow students a year-long experience in basic guide dog training.

Passionate about her affiliation with the organization, she is emotional when asked about her connection to their work. “[GDB] really is an incredible organization and they support their dogs and clients better than anyone,” says Savageau. “They are supportive of new ideas for the dogs and people alike. They are better than you’d ever imagine.”

Since 1942, Guide Dogs for the Blind, Inc. has empowered lives by fostering partnerships between people, dogs and communities. They are the largest guide dog school in the country and are dedicated to providing high quality student training services which are offered at no cost.

They operate two training facilities (one in San Rafael, California, another in Boring, Oregon), and have more than 1,400 puppy-raising families throughout the Western states. More than 12,500 teams have graduated since their founding, and there are approximately 2,100 active guide dog teams across the United States and Canada.

Savageau works with GDB as a liaison and helps students navigate their puppies through a 12-month program. This coming school year, she’s preparing for 28 new puppies to be matched with students from five different schools. The program is an illustration of her vision for dog training, her dedication to teaching, and the District’s foresight to support a leading-edge education program.

“We have an incredible agricultural education program in the state and the support of the administration, along with Guide Dogs for the Blind, makes my job possible,” says Savageau.

After the puppies “graduate” locally, they’re taken to GDB’s national headquarters and given 10-12 weeks of additional training. After that, they are matched with a client who has gone through their own qualification process. Unfortunately, the costs are often too high for students to travel to see their puppies officially graduate, but Savageau is hopeful ongoing fundraising efforts will make it possible for students to see how their hard work connects to those in need.

Puppy training with high school students is time-intensive and sometimes emotionally taxing — both on the students and Savageau, but well worth it in the end. “I’ve had more than one student say how much raising a dog has changed their life. A kid who struggles to make friends might now have a dog to take to school or keep them focused at home and it helps them meet new people. It gives them confidence and they become people who they might not have become. Dog people know what that is like.”

GDB’s tagline is, “Raise a Puppy. Change a Life,” and Savageau’s work with the dogs and students has changed many lives. Still, she considers it a blessing that her passion for animals, teaching, and dog training has given her the opportunity to work with many gifted souls.

“How lucky am I that I get to play with dogs and kids all day? It’s really the greatest thing.”

By April A. Northstrom

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