Navigating Higher Learning: Leader Dog Style

By Jennifer Wilkinson

Published in: Update - Issue 3 - 2014 »   

By the time you are choosing a college or university, you have likely spent well over 7,000 days in various schools preparing for this moment. It is not a small investment, but now the end game of school days is near. Time for some hard questions: which college? Should you stay close to home or venture far away? What major? Live on campus or off? How will you get from point A to point B?

This summer, six young women tackled that last question at Leader Dogs for the Blind. Ranging in age from 17 to 21, each was about to embark on a brand new chapter of her life. And so, all six made one more important choice before heading off to college; first, they would come to Michigan to meet a four-footed best friend, guide and traveling companion.

Samantha stands beside Leader Dog Natsumi, who is sitting on the floor. They are smiling and facing the camera in a hallway of Sam's college

Samantha Dalton and LD Natsumi

Samantha Dalton is 21 and just began studying business administration at Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana for a two-year transfer degree. Her plan is to head to Indiana University South Bend in a couple years to earn her bachelor’s degree in the same subject.

This summer, she fell in love with the Leader Dog, who is accompanying her through all of it.

Leader Dog Natsumi is a happy-go-lucky black Labrador retriever who likes to start her day by showering Sam with kisses. “She’s got such a great personality and makes me laugh all the time,” Sam says. “Even today while we were walking through the halls on campus I found myself smiling because Natsu was just so happy and bouncy and ready to go on whatever adventure I said was next.”

Natsumi’s happy energy is contagious. College staff members have told Sam that seeing Natsumi and Sam work together has brought smiles to their faces as well. “My sociology professor saw us coming into the classroom this morning and said, ‘Look, here comes the Dalton family.’ I really enjoy hearing the administrative staff talk to each other about her and refer to her as part of the student body.”

Sam admits that starting life with a Leader Dog has been more challenging then she expected. “I feel like everything has been a progression since we have come home from Leader Dog, and I feel like everything gets a little bit smoother each time that we do it.” With time and teamwork, Natsumi has become better at settling in Sam’s classes and learning her schedule and routines. Sam has no words of regret about the process, saying, “I wouldn’t change it for a thing. I can’t wait to see how things progress as we become even more of a seasoned team together.”

With Leader Dog Natsumi at Sam’s side, campus and the surrounding areas are less intimidating. “I feel much more confident than I could have imagined when I go out traveling with Natsu,” Sam says. “I find myself going out and doing things in the community independently more often than I did before I had my Leader Dog.”

All six young women stands outside on the campus of Wayne State University with their dogs in harness sitting or lying down next to them

L to R: Katelyn Strangstalien and LD Madison, Samantha Dalton and LD Natsumi, Grace Minter and LD Stormy, Raven Wilson and LD Dana,
Shannon Columb and LD Frasier, Michelle Lee and LD Kelsey training on the campus of Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan

Katelyn Strangstalien is 18 years old and has settled into dorm life at the College of Saint Benedict. Just a few months ago, she was settling into a similar room as she waited to meet the dog who would accompany her in her college career. Before long, she was learning about her new roommate for the foreseeable future: a yellow Labrador named Madison. After training together on Leader Dog’s campus, they only had a short time to get acclimated with Katelyn’s family and home before setting off for college.

Katelyn and Madison are now traversing the grounds of the College of Saint Benedict and learning the ropes of working on a college campus. Like many college campuses, this one has a feature that could be a tempting distraction for Katelyn’s canine companion: “There are a lot of squirrels.” In spite of the squirrels, Katelyn says things are going well. “We do really good together,” she says. With a groan, she adds, “She makes me get up early, but it helps me get stuff done!”

Like many college freshman, Katelyn is still undecided about exactly where her college career is taking her. She is majoring in communications while figuring out what might be in her future, but wherever she goes, she is never alone. “Maddie helps me get around and we go everywhere together,” she says. An added bonus of Madison’s presence that any college freshman can appreciate? “She’s helping me make friends!”

Michelle sits next to Leader Dog Kelsey smiling for her Leader Dog ID photo

Michelle Lee and LD Kelsey

Michelle Lee is also 18 years old, and she and Katelyn were not only in the same class at Leader Dog, they are both attending the College of Saint Benedict and majoring in the same program. After they arrived on campus, one of Leader Dog’s field representatives joined them to help them and their dogs get used to the layout and navigation of the college grounds. “It went really well,” Michelle says. “The dogs have been really good at finding the flag pole [a central reference point in the middle of campus] and the bus stop.”

Michelle’s guide is Kelsey, a black Labrador/golden retriever cross with an infectious smile. Michelle says Kelsey has been adapting to campus nicely, but right away she mentions the same outdoor affliction as Katelyn, “There are so many squirrels!” Despite this challenge to Kelsey’s attention, Michelle and Kelsey have already adapted to life in the dorm and the travel routine from class to class.

Michelle is pursuing her education with specific plans for her future. “I like the feel of the court room and the law but I don’t see myself as a lawyer. What I really want to be is a stenographer or a court reporter.”

Before Raven Wilson came to Leader Dog, her parents were a little nervous. “It was going to be the longest time I’d been away from home,” she explains. Raven had been using a white cane as a travel aid, and she wanted to learn to work with a guide dog before starting her first year at University of Illinois at Springfield.

Since starting school this fall, Raven has been busy working toward her major in English with the goals of studying abroad and eventually becoming a high school English teacher. She won’t be alone; accompanying her is a social black Labrador/golden retriever named Dana, who Raven says seems to love her classes. “She gives the other students puppy dog eyes and likes to sneak licks when no one’s looking.”

Raven has felt a big difference between using a white cane and working with Leader Dog Dana. “I found it to be a lot easier to navigate with her than with a cane because I don’t have to worry about my safety as much. I don’t have to worry about going into streets where there are cars or obstacles because Dana takes care of that.”

Despite her parents’ early concerns about Raven coming to Leader Dog, she says that as she got more excited about it, her parents did too. “And now they adore Dana,” she laughs, “They always ask when I’m coming home because they want to see Dana!”

Grace stands outside, smiling beside Mid-Atlantic Christian University's sign with Leader Dog Stormy sitting next to her

Grace Minter and LD Stormy

Grace Minter is not starting college until January, but she has no trouble articulating her plans for the next five to ten years. She will be attending Mid-Atlantic Christian University to major in biblical studies. After getting her associate degree, the 18-year-old plans on continuing in their Christian counseling program and ultimately achieving a master’s in visual rehabilitation therapy. “I would like to teach assistive technology to other people with visual impairments,” she says.

As a preparatory step for her busy college career, Grace opted to spend almost a month training at Leader Dog with her gentle giant, 70-pound golden retriever Stormy. Shortly after returning home with Stormy, Grace wrote to Leader Dog to tell us about their life together, saying, “Stormy is a truly wonderful and special dog. When in harness, he is totally focused and eager to work. You can tell he loves his job.” When the harness comes off, Stormy is a fun-loving goofball. “He absolutely adores belly rubs, being scratched, and chasing his tail.”

At 17, Shannon Columb is the youngest of the group. Before embarking on her last year of high school, Shannon traveled to Leader Dog. It was not her first time here; Shannon had previously attended Leader Dog’s Summer Experience Camp and Accelerated Orientation and Mobility Training.

This summer, she was paired with Leader Dog Frasier, a solemn-looking but affectionate black Labrador/golden retriever cross. Shannon says that despite the stress and pressure of her hectic senior year, “Frasier is definitely making my last year the best year of high school.” Frasier enjoys accompanying Shannon to her classes, seeing her friends and teachers and sleeping under her desk. “All my classmates and teachers adore Frasier and have welcomed him as an Eagle (that’s our mascot),” she says.

Shannon is applying to University of Wisconsin–Whitewater, where she plans to begin studying communications, specializing in public relations. And after college? “Who knows where I might end up after college? New York... Chicago… or even Green Bay. I just want to live in a bigger city, get a job, settle down, travel and live my life to the fullest!”
Shannon credits her time at Leader Dog with helping her become the outgoing, confident young woman she is today. In these last few months, Leader Dog Frasier has become an important part of that. “Frasier’s definitely changed my life—he’s made me more confident, independent and responsible. He’s become my best friend—always there with a wagging tail, and someone I can trust with my safety. I couldn’t have asked for a better dog to be my first guide dog. He’s the perfect match for me.”