UNITY, Maine — Two of the graduates honored this week at Unity College really stood out from the others — in the cutest and furriest of ways.
Malcolm and Mac, two Labrador retrievers who are certainly among the best-known residents of the small college, are trailbreakers, both at the school and in the state. They have spent the last year being raised by four undergraduate students through a program run by Guiding Eyes for the Blind.
The internationally accredited nonprofit organization provides guide dogs at no cost to visually impaired and blind people and service dogs to children with autism. It is the first year that the agency has entered into a partnership with any college in the state.
“They’re the first guide dogs to go to college in Maine,” said Nicole Viveiros, a graduating senior from Somerset, Massachusetts, who has worked with Malcolm since last fall. “He did really well. It’s been a lot of fun and rewarding. Difficult at times, but rewarding.”
Malcolm and Mac, littermates with matching soulful eyes, wore their Guiding Eyes for the Blind vests as they excitedly approached the awards podium to accept their certificates and two bags of dog treats. The Labradors came to campus as energetic puppies with a lot to learn before continuing the process of becoming a guide or service dog.
Unity College staff carefully chose the four students who were responsible for raising the puppies, picking Viveiros, an adventure therapy major; Georgia Male, a junior captive wildlife care and education major from Old Lyme, Connecticut; Mikala Robinson, a conservation law enforcement major from Danvers, Massachusetts, who graduated in December; and Megan Carroll, a sophomore wildlife and fisheries management major from Meriden, Connecticut, for the job.
“Reliability was the biggest thing,” Sarah Cunningham, chief student success officer, said. “This really was a huge job they’ve taken on. They’re very valuable animals. They’ll be really important to someone. We needed students we could trust to balance that responsibility with the job of being a student.”
They chose well, she said.
“They’ve been incredible,” Cunningham said. “We’re proud of the dogs and we’re proud of the students.”
Male said the job of raising Mac was as labor-intensive as it was rewarding. She and the other student puppy raisers needed to make sure they did a good job socializing the dogs so that they can calmly greet people, can walk safely in a road and perform other skills necessary before beginning formal guide dog training.
“It’s a lot of work. It’s not like a class you would go to — it’s 24-7. Just like any other living thing, they require care and attention,” she said. “It’s going to be hard to give him up. I love him a lot. It doesn’t help that he’s the best dog ever. It’ll be weird not having him at my side.”
Later this summer, both Mac and Malcolm will leave Maine to go back to Yorktown Heights, New York, where Guiding Eyes for the Blind is based. There, the dogs will be assessed and put through practical tests. If the Labradors do well, the intensive guide training program will begin.
“This is his elementary education,” Male said of Mac’s year at Unity College. “I am pretty confident that he’s going to become a working dog. These dogs really can change people’s lives. When these dogs go with their blind person, they get to give them sight. They give them their freedom.”
Although she will miss Mac a lot when he leaves, she already has signed up to help raise another puppy at the college next year. That is good news for the school, according to Unity College President Melik Khoury.
“We do everything we can to have our students have real-life experience in their coursework,” he said. “Working with these dogs is doing real work. It’s real training for a career. And the dogs are just so cute.”