A guide dog’s journey begins well before the moment curious bystanders see it navigating a crosswalk, on the bustling metro, or at a restaurant with its blind or visually-impaired owner. It takes the dedication of a host of volunteers to turn a rambunctious puppy into a dog that is ready to guide people through their everyday lives. One such volunteer is Montgomery College Professor Kiersten Newtoff, a “puppy raiser” who takes Neville, her black Labrador Retriever puppy, everywhere she goes—including the classroom.
Newtoff became involved with Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a nonprofit headquartered in Yorktown Heights, New York, after a puppy de-stress event at MC’s Germantown Campus. The organization brings dogs to college campuses to interact with students during stressful times such as midterms and finals. When Newtoff learned about their mission, she decided to volunteer as a puppy sitter.
“Once a month, I would have the dog for two to seven days, which is a good segue for anyone who is thinking about raising a dog,” said Newtoff, a biology instructor.
She received a call the following year. The family raising Schyler, an eight-month old Labrador Retriever, needed support in raising him. Newtoff started taking care of him several days a week and eventually became his full-time raiser.
“I figured after he graduated I would go back to puppy sitting because I like that arrangement. The same day I told people that, I got an email about another dog in the Baltimore region that needed a home,” Newtoff said. “You get attached to the dogs and you love the mission. How do you say no to training a guide dog? And now I have Neville.”
The fact that he can come to work with me … it really makes a huge impact, not just for me but also for the dog. They get a very unique experience
She dropped Schyler off in New York this past summer. He passed his initial testing to continue in guide school and will hopefully be paired with a blind user in February 2020. On the drive back, she picked up then six-month-old Neville. The puppy lives with her and her boyfriend. “He is a total cat person and I am slowly bringing him to the dog-person side,” she laughs. Neville rides the Metro, hangs out during Newtoff’s office hours, and goes to class with her.
The pup and his predecessor’s ubiquitous presence has even helped some students overcome their fear of dogs.
“I would say 10 to 20 percent of my students have a fear of dogs, so they see this dog in the classroom and it elicits fear. But they’re good and calm dogs,” she says. “I had one student who was terrified at first, and by the end of the semester she actually petted Schyler. You can see that throughout the semester students get more comfortable with dogs in general, which of course makes me happy.”
Newtoff always had dogs growing up, but once she was on her own, going to school and working, she wasn’t ready for the added responsibility.
“MC has been incredibly supportive of Guiding Eyes for the Blind,” she says. “The fact that he can come to work with me … it really makes a huge impact, not just for me but also for the dog. They get a very unique experience.”
Banner photo: Kiersten Newtoff and Schyler