Manteo High School junior Elle Vandzura deserves her charitable service credit in a unique way – by raising a puppy to be a future guide dog.
In April, when many students were enjoying a week of spring break, Vandzura traveled with her father to the Leader Dogs headquarters in Rochester Hills, Michigan to pick up the nine-week-old Scout, a mixed black Labrador / German Shepherd puppy.
For the next 12-14 months, Vandzura, her parents, and her brother Hart are tasked with socializing Scout and exposing them to a variety of experiences in order to prepare them to be a guide dog. They take their places like Lowe’s, Food-A-Rama, Oretega’z Southwestern Grill, the beach, even the church. “She’s doing amazingly well in church,” said Elle’s father Boone Vandzura. He is the Chief Ranger at Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
The Vandzuras ask the business owners for permission to bring Scout into the house. “We’re actually going to more places now,” Elle said.
When she’s out in public, Scout wears a harness or bandana that says, “Don’t paint, I work” to prevent intelligible petting of an adorable puppy. Seeing eye canine etiquette says that you should not pet a dog while he or she is working, as this can distract the dog from noticing any danger. Scout, who loves new people like any four month old puppy, is trained to wait for a new person to ask for permission to pet them. The person will stand up straight (not reaching for the dog) until Scout is seated – which is their way of being petted – and then the attention can begin!
Every week, Elle attends Zoom meetings to keep her informed about Scout’s development and training. Leader Dogs also offers a coach who is available any time of the day by phone or email to help with any issues Scout has. Elle and her family are serving as volunteers, and all food and medical supplies for Scout are their responsibility, although the Roanoke Island Animal Clinic has scaled back supplies to Scout.
The Vandzuras are constantly training Scout for their future role as lead dog. You’ll have to use a number of Leader Dogs commands and use special chew toys to help Scouts transition to their future owners. For example, the command to urinate / defecate is “park” – how many sentences do typical dog owners use to say the same thing? One of the most important skills Scout can learn is to “settle in” or sit quietly next to their owners. Leader Dogs selects dog breeds that are naturally calm, tall, and healthy. Most of their dogs are Golden Retrievers, Labradors, and German Shepherds.
Loud noise locations such as baseball games, skate parks, and concerts are important to visit so that Scout can become familiar with new sounds with the comfort and safety of their caregivers. “We don’t want her to be scared. Knowing when your dog is scared is important so that you can calm him down, ”Boone said.
As important as exposing Scout to new experiences, the Vandzuras must also be aware not to form habits or expectations in Scout that they may not have with future owners. “We play frisbee with her, but it’s important that we don’t play frisbee with her every day so she doesn’t expect it,” said Boone. Even seemingly innocuous things, like making Scout jump on the couch or playfully gnawing their fingers, need to be considered for their future effects. “It’s cute now, but is it cute when she weighs 70 pounds?” said Elle.
COVID-19 has actually opened up more opportunities for people to serve as “puppy breeders”. Previously, all on-site training was held in Rochester Hills, so trainers had to live near Leader Dogs headquarters and attend weekly training in person. With all training now taking place on zoom or pre-recorded video, families like the Vandzuras can now participate in the puppy education program. This also benefits people with visual impairments, as Leader Dogs can better match a dog’s experience with its ultimate owner, for example someone who lives near the ocean, in the mountains, or in a busy city.
Scouts training with the Vandzuras is just one step on their journey. She will return to Michigan next summer and begin extensive lead dog training. After completing her training, she will be placed with a visually impaired person.
It’s difficult for Elle to love a dog when you know the day will come when she will have to bring her back to Leader Dogs. “But it makes me feel good because I am helping other people. You need her more than I do, ”she said.
Her father agreed. Growing up, he participated in raising puppies with three different dogs and wished his children would have the same experience. His eyes filled with tears as he looked at his daughter while Scout sat contentedly under her chair. “Just knowing what we’re doing …” he paused. “We’ll be sad.”
But it’s a worthwhile sacrifice for the Vandzura family, for the long-term goal of providing a dog to someone in need, and also for the opportunity to raise a puppy. They love Scout for the same reasons that all pet owners love their dogs: “When you get home and she is excited to see you and wants to be next to you.” Although she is training for a very important job, “she is not a robot, ”said Elle. “She is very energetic and loving.”
READ MORE NEWS AND EVENTS HERE.
Coast Guard Medal awarded to Nags Head Lifeguard
The Cape Hatteras Secondary Class of 2021 celebrates scholarships