USFSP Embraces ‘Puppy Love’ Culture of Guide Dogs

A photo of four students with a Southeastern Guide Dog puppy named Howie

 From left: USFSP Puppy Raisers Club President Stephanie Campos and club members Melissa Simpson, Michael Oravits, and Paige Sharp pose with Howie when Oravits picked him up from SEGD in March. Photo credit: Kathy Saunders.

Precocious puppies have become a staple of campus life at USF St. Petersburg. In a new first for the USF System, USFSP has established a Puppy Raisers Club, partnering with Southeastern Guide Dogs to enable students to assist in raising and training future guide and therapy dogs.

“Our ultimate goal was always to have students raising future guide dogs on the university campus,” said Kathy Saunders, a volunteer area coordinator for southwest Pinellas County for SEGD. While taking graduate classes at USFSP, she decided to start a campus club to help recruit new puppy raisers.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for civic engagement for the students,” said Deni Elliott, chair of the USFSP Department of Journalism and Media Studies. Elliott, who is visually impaired and has been aided by guide dogs for more than 17 years, serves as the club’s faculty advisor. “It’s also a great opportunity for people on campus to learn about disabilities and how people with at least one type of disability get around. It furthers our university mission to promote diversity.”

To create the club, Saunders sought tips and guidance from other college campus puppy raiser clubs around the U.S., including Rutgers University. Once she had drafted a constitution and bylaws for the club, she applied to establish the club at USFSP.

A photo of Anthony Loffler walking along the Bayboro Harbor waterfront with Jennings

Anthony Loffler walks with Jennings along the Bayboro Harbor waterfront. Jennings was the first guide dog in training to be raised as part of the USFSP Puppy Raisers Club.

Anthony Loffler walks with Jennings. Jennings is the first guide dog in training to be raised at USFSP through the Puppy Raisers Club.

The student organization operates with three levels of members: puppy raisers, puppy sitters, and general members. Puppy raisers currently can only live off campus and have to train the dogs throughout the day to meet strict standards. Sitters must be trained and can handle the puppies but do not reside with them. General members support the club but do not raise or handle the dogs.

Elliott and Saunders have worked to further change the culture at USFSP with the help of Jake Diaz, dean of Students, by establishing the “Puppy Love” Living Learning Community. Thus far, eight students have signed up to live in the new LLC in Residence Hall One this fall. Up to four students will live together in a suite, and one puppy will be assigned to each suite.

Anthony Loffler, a political science senior, was the first of USFSP’s two puppy raisers. Loffler, 25, lives off-campus with Jennings, a 7-month-old female yellow Labrador. He takes her with him to class and to coffee shops while he studies. Michael Oravits, 20, became an official raiser of Howie, a 3-month-old lab, in March. Oravits spends 6-8 hours per day training Howie and brings him to the Debbie Nye Sembler Student Success Center on campus, where he serves as the center’s unofficial mascot.

In addition to working with puppies on campus, some USFSP students have completed internships at SEGD in the organization’s Genetics and Reproduction Department. Biology junior Stephanie Campos is one of the students who recently completed an SEGD internship. During the spring semester, she performed data entry, prepared medications for the dogs, and learned about the female heat cycle and how to monitor the dogs via blood work and progesterone.

“Going behind the scenes and watching the process really put things in perspective—seeing all those people work together to achieve one common goal—was an incredible experience,” said Campos.

View more photos of Jennings, Howie, and the USFSP Puppy Raisers.