A visually impaired student received a new guide dog, but student interference has begun to cause training set-backs.

Alissa Sparks, a senior majoring in university studies, received her guide dog, Willie, on Oct. 16.

Sparks said that at this critical time of training, some students are distracting Willie, which can cause potential danger for Sparks.

She said that as she was waiting to cross a busy intersection, students were calling to the dog, which kept Willie from watching the traffic. While nothing dangerous happened then, it could have kept Willie from guiding her safely across the street.

Lisa Harvey, Willie’s trainer, said some of the issues she and Sparks are having with students are calling to Willie, petting Willie and generally distracting him from his duties.

“If that happens enough and he gets petted enough, he is going to start going from person to person soliciting attention instead of paying attention to Alissa and her safety,” Harvey said. “It is critical people try not to distract him.”

Harvey said students should talk to Sparks, not Willie.

“Pretend like he isn’t there,” Harvey said. “He is doing his job.”

Despite their challenges, Sparks and Willie are bonding well and making a great team, Harvey said.

Sparks said another example of distraction occurred in the Manwaring Center. While Willie was guiding Sparks to class, a student began to call Willie over to her, which kept Willie from focusing on Sparks.

Harvey said that starting from a young age, puppies are exposed to as many different situations as possible including cars, people of different races, children, stores and anywhere a visually impaired person might need to go.

Those who interact with a person with low vision and their guide dog should follow several guidelines in order to protect the handler and the guide dog, according to the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind.

Failure to follow the guidelines can distract the dog and put the handler in a dangerous situation, according to the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind.

“It is excellent education for everyone for the rest of their lives,” Harvey said.

Sparks said she prefers to have a guide dog because they can work as a team, and she feels comforted and confident.

“I feel more free,” Sparks said. “I feel independent.”

Service animal etiquette, according to the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind:
— Do not touch, talk to, feed or distract the dog while it is wearing its harness.
— Do not treat the dog as a pet.
— Do not give the dog commands.
— Do not try to take control in situations unfamiliar to the dog or handler.
— Do not walk on the dog’s left side, as it may become distracted or confused.
— Do not attempt to grab or steer the handler while the dog is guiding the handler or attempt to hold the dog’s harness.
— Do not give the dog human food.
— Do not tease or abuse the dog.
— Do not allow pets to challenge or intimidate a guide dog.
— Do not pat the dog on the head.
— Individuals can stroke the dog on the shoulder area but only with the handler’s approval. Do not be offended if the handler says no.