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Furry Friends: RU students share Leader Dog love

One’s a puppy raiser & one's a guide dog user

Amelia and Danielle with their dogs on campus./Photo by Christian Frazier

by Amelia Calkin & Danielle Castillo

On our campus, two students, both members of the Shield Media team, have dogs from Leader Dogs for the Blind, which is a nonprofit organization based just down the road in Rochester Hills.

Amelia Calkin, a sophomore mass communication major, is raising Bear, a 10-month-old yellow Labrador retriever who hopefully will become a future Leader Dog. Danielle Castillo, a sophomore mass communication major, owns Dux, a 4-year old black Labrador who helps Danielle safely navigate her surroundings.

How would you describe your dog’s personality?

AC: “Bear is very much a people person. He loves meeting new people and new dogs. He’s very energetic and loves to play with his toys. Watch out though because he’s very sneaky and fast!”

DC: “Dux is chill. He’s a laid back little man. I could count on both hands the number of times I’ve heard him bark. His favorite thing to do is sit in my lap and gnaw on a frozen Kong toy. He loves to make friends when he’s not on duty and eat cheese.”

What challenges have you faced with your dog?

AC: “His barking! I’ve learned that he barks when I’m not giving him attention, and at school, it’s difficult to keep his barking to a minimum and not disturb other residents while also getting homework and other tasks done. Another challenge has been trying to stick to Leader Dog guidelines as far as how to train him, what he can and can’t do, what toys he can and can’t play with, etc.”

DC: “The hardest part of traveling with a Leader Dog is interference from the public. As a visually impaired individual, I rely on my Labrador to keep me safe while we wander around. When he gets distracted, he’s not focused on looking for curbs, stairs or moving vehicles.”

What surprised you when you first got paired with your dog?

AC: “When I first got the email that they had him available for me, they told me that he was going to be one of the ‘featured dogs’ on their website. I learned he was one of the sponsorship dogs that people could donate money to partner him with a visually impaired person.”

DC: “The most surprising thing to me was the sheer amount of work that goes into it. As a dog who is seen in public, it’s my responsibility to keep him looking and behaving in a presentable manner. At that point, I hadn’t had a dog before and only knew what I’d read. No amount of reading could have prepared me for that.”

What’s your favorite thing about your dog?

AC: “My favorite thing about Bear is being able to say he’s mine (for the time being of course). Having a family dog is one thing, but having a dog that I care for on my own, has been the best thing ever.”

DC: “Dux prevents me from getting hit by a truck. I don’t particularly like or trust cars. Whenever I’m walking with my ninja stick (white cane), I’m using my own senses to determine if it’s safe or not. I can use traffic patterns but having him judging my decision is really comforting.”

Dux, 4 years old/photo by Christian Frazier

What’s the worst thing about having a Leader Dog?

AC: “My social life has been limited because of this program. I can only go out for a certain amount of time if he’s not with me because I can’t leave him for long periods of time.”

DC: “As a working dog, he has to be taken outside on a schedule so both of us know what to expect from each other. Since I can’t see all that well, I can’t let him loose in the yard to do his thing. We go on leash, which isn’t a problem when it’s nice out, but I dislike waiting for him in our Michigan winters!”

How has having a dog from this program changed your life?

AC: “This program has provided me with challenges I never thought I’d face before, but it also has provided me with opportunities I never thought I would have. I’ve loved having him in my life for the past few months and I can’t wait to see how he helps others in the future. It’s especially changed my life knowing that what I’m doing will benefit visually impaired people.”

DC: “Absolutely. I got him when I was 17 and that’s the age where most people start gaining their independence via getting a car. Dux is my car of sorts. He helps me get places I wouldn’t feel comfortable walking alone. I don’t need to rely as much on others to help me get around. I only wish he could learn to read menus.”

Do people treat you differently when you have your dog with you?

AC: “I wouldn’t say people treat us differently, but they definitely notice us. When I have Bear with me, more people will come up to me that I’ve never talked to and say, “Hi,” and ask to pet him or give him compliments.

DC:“Yes. We get more attention, both positive and negative. People love seeing dogs and I’ve noticed people are more willing to approach you if you’ve got a dog by your side as opposed to the white cane, which people try to stay away from.”

Bear, 10 months old/Photo By Christian Frazier

What’s some advice you have for someone who may be interested in raising a Future Leader Dog?

AC: “It’s a lot of work and it can get very stressful at times because you’re responsible for a living creature with goals and needs to be met, which makes it more than just having a dog as a pet. I can honestly say that if this is something you want to do, do it because you’ll get the experience of a lifetime!”

Did you ever think you would be paired with a Leader Dog?

DC: “When I was growing up, my parents didn’t treat me any differently from my sighted siblings and friends. We rode bikes around the neighborhood and stayed outside past dark. I knew I couldn’t read books or signs, but I thought everyone saw this way. I was 13 when I pieced it together. Only then, at my request, did I begin learning blind travel skills, such as crossing streets by sound and using the white cane. As soon as I realized I’d qualify for a guide dog, I began researching — 14-year-old me had spreadsheets of all the guide dog schools in the states (and some outside). I knew I wanted to be paired with one. It was just a matter of turning 16.”

What should people do when they see your dog on campus?

AC: “It depends on when you see us. When he wears his jacket, he’s working and in training. Most of the time, it’s off, so he’s just a dog. Regardless of whether or not he’s wearing his jacket, I need to make sure he sits and is calm in order to be rewarded and pet. Once he sits, though, pet away!”

DC: “This will differ depending on the time. When Dux and I are walking around and he has his harness on, he’s on the job whether he’s sitting under a desk or crossing a road. But if you want to pet him, just ask. Dux loves meeting people! Depending on our schedule, I may remove his harness and let him make friends.”

For more information on Leader Dogs for the Blind, visit


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