Dr. Allison Watts has a rather unique student in her classroom this year. His name is Raider, and he’s not here for the internationally accredited business program. The black Labrador retriever attending class each day with Watts is a Seeing Eye puppy.
Watts, an associate professor of management in the John L. Grove College of Business, decided to try her hand at raising puppies for Seeing Eye, Inc., the oldest guide dog school in the country, after speaking with fellow Seeing Eye puppy raiser Dr. Andrea Malmont, associate professor of teacher education. Malmont is currently raising her 13th puppy, Kinley, who will return to The Seeing Eye early next year for her formal training.
Two raised puppies later, Watts wanted to take on a third puppy and this time she wanted to get the campus and her students involved. Her previous dogs were named before they arrived, but she knew the organization allows donors to sponsor and name a puppy. Malmont started the fundraiser to name a puppy Raider, and the goal was for students to help raise the remaining funds.
“[Dr. Watts] came up with the idea for a project for a small group in our Strategic Implementation class. The goal was to raise $5,000 for the dog to be named in honor of Shippensburg University,” Jonathan Klinedinst ’19 said.
The campaign efforts started with a group of students during the fall of 2019. They did not reach the $5,000 goal that semester so the campaign continued for Watts’ students in the spring of 2020. As students transitioned to remote learning during that semester because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they had to get creative and a lot of the fundraising occurred online.
“We were already online. We had a GoFundMe and a Facebook page. The students told me ‘we have to do Instagram,’” said Watts. Odie, the puppy she was raising at that time, was featured on the Instagram account.
According to Watts the organization names all puppies in each new litter with names starting with the same letter. They cycle through the alphabet, with around 500 dogs named each year. After the funds were raised, Watts waited for the arrival of the “R” litter with the hopes of naming a puppy Raider.
Raider arrived to Watts in April 2021. His arrival was extra special as Raider is a bit of a Ship dog legacy. He is the grandson of Skiba, a Seeing Eye puppy that frequented campus years ago and was raised by Malmont.
If you follow Raider on Instagram (@ShipRaiderpup-tse), you’ll see he is everywhere and that is the whole point behind Watts’ work.
“We’re socializing them. We’re not really training them. So my goal is to take him as many places possible,” Watts explained.
Those places include church, the doctor’s office, and of course, campus. Raider helped cheer on Raiders at volleyball matches, swim practice, football games and at the recent field hockey national championship. He’s a regular in Grove Hall, in the Quad and he’s even been known to hang out with Big Red. The are some restrictions on where he can visit, like planes and busy grocery stores while he’s a puppy. The goal is for the dogs to become confident in any situation they may face in their work.
“To me, this is sort of a perfect environment. There are over 5,000 people on this campus. Mostly young people, but we also have faculty and staff, different sizes, different races, and that is helpful,” she said.
But the socialization process means a little extra work and time for Watts. “Everything takes longer,” Watts said laughing. Five-minute walks across campus last a bit longer, as Raider makes frequent stops for breaks and to meet and greet everyone he encounters.
Though she takes Raider everywhere on campus, she is mindful not everyone has the same comfort level with dogs. She polls her students before the start of the semester and so far, all students have welcomed Raider.
“I have had students who are afraid of dogs. And to some degree this has helped them,” she added.
With many students missing their own dogs, or just struggling with the stress of the semester, Raider is often a bright spot in their days. In fact, she knows many students don’t know her name, but they know Raider.
“So many students will say ‘Oh my god, today was horrible and he just made my day.’” Watts added.
The only real challenge she faces is saying goodbye to the dogs once they move on to their formal training.
Raider will stay with Watts until the summer or fall of 2022 and will then begin his formal training before going to work.
Watts’ first Seeing Eye puppy, Herman, was paired with a woman similar in age to Watts who has thrived with the support of service dogs since a very young age. “This might be one of the first times where I can say I absolutely helped a person. Yes, I teach here and I like to think I help students, but this person’s life will be better because of the dog,” said Watts.
Most of the students who helped Watts raise funds to name Raider graduated before his arrival, but the meaning of the experience still resonates with them as well.
“It was impactful to see Dr. Watts with Odie and being able to know that he would be making a difference in someone’s life and knowing that us raising money for Raider would make the same impact.” said Madison Hoffman ’20.
Klinedinst and Hoffman are hopeful Watts will continue engaging students in projects like this for as long as she works with the Seeing Eye, Inc.
“I’m debating. I’ve gotten a lot out of it. But it’s work.” Watts said.
The program will engage with Watts when Raider is around the nine-month mark, asking if she wants to raise another dog. If Raider is successful in his training, she will likely take on a new puppy. If he is not, Raider will become her pet and continue to bring joy to campus.