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Puppy is headed for rigorous schooling--but not at MIT

Clad in a yellow vest, a badge of his future profession, the student makes his way each day down the halls of MIT collecting affectionate glances and the occasional question or comment. But he still has a fair amount of training and growing to do before he starts his working life, since he's less than a foot tall.

The "student" is Huntington, a 14-week-old golden retriever puppy who has been bred by Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) as a potential "helper dog" who will one day assist someone who is physically or developmentally handicapped. Before he can learn all the tasks for that job, he and other CCI puppies must be raised and given preliminary training in simple commands and socialization with people in various settings. Huntington's "foster home" is with the family of Marilee Jones, associate director of admissions, so his training includes accompanying her wherever she goes.

CCI, which is based in Santa Rosa, CA, and has five regional offices, breeds and trains dogs for several careers, explained CCI Northeast Region chief volunteer fundraiser Lavanya Raju (whose husband is G.K. Raju, a graduate student in chemical engineering). There are service dogs for those with mobility problems, social dogs for children or adults with developmental disabilities such as autism, and hearing dogs for deaf people. Most service dogs are golden or Labrador retrievers, while hearing dogs are smaller breeds such as Shetland sheepdogs.

It costs roughly $10,000 to raise and train each dog, but they are provided free of charge to clients. Care and basic training between the ages of eight weeks and about eighteen months is provided by volunteers like Ms. Jones and her family. The organization is also aided by private donations (Huntington himself is named for the Huntington [Long Island] Women's Club, which contributes to the regional CCI facility in nearby Farmingdale).

Ms. Jones and her family-which includes Steven Bussolari, group leader of Group 42 at Lincoln Laboratory, their eight-year-old daughter Nora, another dog and two cats-will keep Huntington until he is old enough to attend "boot camp" for eight months of intensive training. If he is chosen as a helper to a wheelchair-bound person, he will learn such tasks as pulling a wheelchair, turning lights on and off, carrying objects, and opening the refrigerator to retrieve food items. Some dogs also are trained to turn over people in bed at night to prevent bedsores, or to position their bodies so a person can roll out of bed onto the dog and thence into a wheelchair, she said.

All helper dogs must learn from an early age not to be distracted and to respect the leash, so Huntington goes with family members to restaurants, schools, movies and malls as well as work, Ms. Jones explained. Like seeing-eye dogs, helper dogs go everywhere with their human companions, and they must be able to ignore extraneous sights, sounds, and people to concentrate on the person's needs. Steady movements and meticulous leash obedience are also essential, since walking too close to a handicapped person or tugging on the leash can cause that person to fall, she added. Consequently, one of any puppy's favorite games, tug-of-war, is forbidden for helper dogs.

Although they are fond of their guest, the Joneses are prepared to say goodbye to Huntington when the time comes, difficult though that may be. "When I look at him, I think how someone needs him right now and that he was born to do this," Ms. Jones said. Her husband hunts waterfowl with a springer spaniel he trained, "so I've seen first-hand how important it is for a dog to do what he's bred to do. I'm very motivated to help him pass [his tests]. I want him to be the smartest, steadiest, readiest dog when he goes to boot camp."

Steven and Marilee Jones have explained Huntington's mission to their daughter, "and she thinks it's a cool idea," Ms. Jones said. There's also a chance that it may not be goodbye forever; if Huntington is found not to be temperamentally suited to a life of service after his training, he will be returned to the family.

Once he is fully housebroken, Huntington will have to learn patience by staying home all day. For now, though, the puppy spends much of his day with Ms. Jones and her colleagues on the Student Services Reengineering Team (he is the unofficial group mascot), or amusing himself with chewable toys and napping in her office. But he is also taken on frequent walks around the Institute and out to nearby Killian Court, usually by Ms. Jones but sometimes by her co-workers who enjoy having a four-legged office mate. "Everyone's been wonderful about this," she said.

Almost everyone has a smile or kind word for the pair, and passers-by often stop to talk to Ms. Jones and sometimes to each other as they reminisce about dogs in their own lives. "Just walking up and down the Infinite Corridor with Huntington is such a blast," Ms. Jones said. "He brings out the goodness in people, and he breaks down a lot of barriers."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 6, 1995.

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