Full Speed Ahead

By Jennifer Wilkinson

Published in: Update - Issue 3 - 2016 »   

There is no shortage of preparation needed for heading off to college, but being unable to visually orient yourself to a large, busy campus adds another layer of complexity. “We spent three and a half days on campus and downtown,” Tripp Gulledge says. “Even that might not have been enough, but it’s what we had to work with.”

Tripp and Leader Dog Dakota walk down a sidewalk toward the camera

Tripp walks to class with LD Dakota.
Photo by Jeffrey D. Etheridge /AU Photographic

The adventure began last year, when Tripp and his Leader Dog, yellow Labrador Dakota, came to Auburn University. Tripp is studying music performance and music education, which means his schedule is packed. “Music majors have a lot of classes that are only one or two credits, so being a full-time student means you don’t have a lot of free time,” Tripp says.

Tripp was aware from a young age that he was likely to lose his vision. When he was just in grade school, a speaker came to his school and gave a presentation about guide dogs. Tripp knew from that moment that he wanted a guide dog, but he still had some residual vision, which can complicate working with a dog. When Tripp was a sophomore, a counselor recommended Leader Dog’s Summer Experience Camp. Tripp was intrigued, but the camp was already full. The next year, Tripp was unable to go. College was quickly approaching, but Tripp had already made his decision: he was going to get a Leader Dog. “Everyone I talked to said such good things,” Tripp recalls. “I never really considered going anywhere else.”

Tripp sits smiling in an armchair with his arms around Dakota, who is lying on top of him

Tripp relaxes with LD Dakota.

Tripp is a fast walker, and he met his match in Leader Dog Dakota. “In the beginning, he was sort of dragging me down the street,” Tripp says. “But we found our balance.” Even though Tripp knew how guide dogs worked, he was impressed by Dakota’s skills as they trained together. “Probably the third or fourth day, I would get back from the routes, and people would be talking about the obstacles on the routes. Dakota was taking me around things I didn’t even know were there, which is when I realized how gifted he was.” Shortly afterward, during night travel training, Tripp and Dakota fell into sync. “He didn’t miss a curb and I didn’t miss a command, and that’s when I knew we were going to be a good team.”

At Auburn, Tripp continues to work on his partnership with Dakota as they traverse campus. “It’s definitely made me a lot more responsible. My schedule is not just about me anymore. On a daily basis, I need to hold up my end of the communication. I need to make sure I’m doing everything right so Dakota can do everything right.” In addition to the mobility and speed that Dakota gives to Tripp, Tripp also appreciates “the pure joy of having a dog.”

Tripp plays his instrument in full band uniform

Tripp plays the mellophone in the marching band.
Photo by Jeffrey D. Etheridge /AU Photographic

Dakota is a popular sight at Auburn. “He attracts a lot of attention. He’s a stud and he knows it,” Tripp says. Tripp has made a tradition of taking Dakota to a sitting area in the music hall during finals week, where he takes off Dakota’s harness and lets his exam-stressed peers enjoy some Labrador love.

In addition to his classes, leading Bible studies and learning the guitar, Tripp is also a member of Auburn’s marching band. Even though his list of activities doesn’t leave him and Dakota with a lot of down time, Tripp thinks that’s what college is all about. “You’re on your own for the first time, and part of the beauty of that is meeting new people and testing the waters and finding different groups,” he says. “Have no fear. Embrace college.”

If you could offer three pieces of advice to a person who’s blind and headed to college, what would they be?

  1. Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself. You have to be comfortable going to people such as professors, administrators or RAs and talking about your needs.
  2. Allot time to orient yourself properly. With or without a guide dog, knowing your environment beforehand will save time and stress.
  3. Branch out. Don’t just go to class and go home. You can’t be afraid to branch out and try new things.