Meghann Principe plays with Sally and Mattie at Penn State Hazleton.

Paws to listen

Sally and Mattie aren’t who you’d typically find on a college campus, but they’re welcome visitors – and good listeners – at Penn State Hazleton.

The Labrador retrievers come to the campus every few weeks with their handlers, retired biology professor Dave Orbin and his wife, Kathy. The Orbins raise puppies to be guide dogs for the blind through The Seeing Eye.

Retired professor and his wife bring guide dogs in training to campus

Sally and Mattie aren’t who you’d typically find on a college campus, but they’re welcome visitors – and good listeners – at Penn State Hazleton.

The Labrador retrievers come to the campus every few weeks with their handlers, retired biology professor Dave Orbin and his wife, Kathy. The Orbins raise puppies to be guide dogs for the blind through The Seeing Eye, based in Morristown, New Jersey, with a local group called PawsAbilities. They bring them to campus as part of the Listening Post, a service Dave Orbin and retired history professor Gene Miller started several years ago for students to talk about anything that’s on their minds.

“Our job is to listen. We don’t give advice,” Dave Orbin said. He said students find a great deal of comfort in the dogs and stop to talk more frequently when the dogs are there.

Some students talk about their classes, their school experience, their plans for the future or their families. Some don’t talk about anything but simply take comfort from petting the dogs.

“Studies have been done that show petting an animal is a very good stress reliever. I’ve had so many students tell me, ‘You made my day.’ I didn’t do anything – that’s just the dogs,” Dave Orbin said.

The Listening Post is staffed every Tuesday in Upper Butler from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The Orbins and the pups are there about every three weeks.

They will also be at the PawsAbilities booth during Penn State Hazleton’s Community Day on October 7, an opportunity for the public to come to campus and enjoy a variety of exhibits and activities.

Having the dogs interact with the students helps with the pups’ socialization, which is part of the training process they undergo with the Orbins.

“The Seeing Eye wants the dogs to be socialized with whatever exposure we can give them. We take them to the campus, movies, church and restaurants. We try to get them to the point where they are not distracted by their environment. Distraction is one of the greatest dangers guide dogs and their blind owners face,” Dave Orbin said. “These dogs are trained to be calm and confident.”

Kathy Orbin added, “Their job is to stay with their person and safely guide them. And they also have to be able to think for themselves in a situation that could be dangerous.”

Mattie, 15 months, has been with the Orbins since she was 7 weeks old. She is the 11th puppy the couple has raised, Kathy explained while sporting a T-shirt with all previous dogs’ names and photos. The puppies stay with their caregivers for about a year for training, where they are housebroken, taught not to jump on people or furniture and trained to remain calm.

Dave Orbin said, “We train the dogs to be well behaved, just as most dog owners would like their dogs to behave.” 

Sally, 8, was trained by the Orbins as a puppy and returned to them in her later years. She was chosen as a breeding dog by The Seeing Eye, had four litters of puppies and was then retired and offered back to the Orbins to live out her years. Sally is certified as a therapy dog, allowing her to go places like hospitals, nursing homes and schools.

They admitted it’s difficult to give the puppies up when it’s time, “but you know going into it you’re doing something good for someone else and giving them up to help someone have a better life,” Kathy Orbin said. She said they received a letter through the Seeing Eye from one woman who referred to a dog the Orbins trained as her “soulmate.”

“It’s a great feeling knowing we raised someone’s soulmate,” Kathy Orbin said.

The Orbins got involved with puppy raising after Dave, a Penn State Master Gardener, was staffing a booth right next to PawsAbilities’ booth at the Luzerne County Fair.

“Kathy came along and ended up sitting with a puppy on her lap for three hours,” Dave Orbin recalled.

PawsAbilities functions as a local support group for those raising puppies for The Seeing Eye. Members meet twice monthly in Kingston, in addition to other events. They step up to take care of another’s charge when a puppy raiser goes on vacation or needs medical care.

After the Orbins return a socialized, housebroken puppy to The Seeing Eye, the dog undergoes about four months of harness training with a professional trainer. The pups will also learn “intelligent disobedience” – how to disobey a command that would not be safe to follow. Then the dogs are matched with a person who is blind or visually impaired, who is referred to as a student while in training with a Seeing Eye dog. The student receives one month of training with their dog.

The Seeing Eye, which is entirely funded by private donations, pays for all veterinary and food needs for the puppies. The Seeing Eye estimates the approximate cost of breeding, puppy raising, training and supplying a student with one month of training to total about $65,000. Students pay just $150 for their first dog, and $50 for subsequent dogs. Veterans pay just $1.