Did you know that the annual FIRST® LEGO® League Challenge is developed almost 2 years in advance? We start by gathering experts from the field and host a workshop to learn about their areas of expertise. We then begin to shape the Challenge based on the information we gathered. The process was no different for last year’s ANIMAL ALLIESSM season – we met with many individuals who work with animals to learn about their interactions.
During the workshop, we learned about the various ways that animals help people, and we couldn’t help but notice how many ways man’s best friend can assist. From acting as companions, to working as guide dogs, to much more – dogs are there for us in many ways.
We try to incorporate examples of the stories experts tell us into the Challenge and missions. For example, you may have noticed that dogs were represented in the ANIMAL ALLIES missions. One of these was Elsa, who was represented in Mission 09 in the dog and trainer model.
Elsa was born in May 2015 and shortly after, she started living with Jay Dowling (a puppy raiser for Guiding Eyes for the Blind) and his family. Puppy raisers take in the dogs at about 8 weeks, and they live and train with them for the following 12-18 months, forming a close bond and exposing the dogs to a variety of situations so they can thrive in the future.
Puppies in the program start their training and conditioning right away. From a young age, volunteers massage the puppies and touch their paws so they have no reservations about human touch. Socialization is a big part of the training, too – puppy raisers take their furry friends on field trips to stores, parks, malls, and even movie theaters to get the pups used to a variety of situations and people. This is important because the dogs can’t be afraid of different noises and environmental factors – their humans rely on them to navigate a variety of situations.
Ultimately, 40%-60% of dogs end up becoming working dogs, and dogs that are too shy or cuddly often do not pass testing. However, these dogs usually make excellent family dogs so they are available for adoption – which is highly competitive, given their training.
From the start, Jay knew that Elsa was special, though he had doubts that she would become a guide dog. Elsa was extremely energetic and athletic with a high vertical jump, which aren’t perfect traits for a guide dog. Jay’s suspicions were confirmed after Elsa failed her guide dog test. However, her athletic qualities and alertness made her an excellent candidate for law enforcement.
After her testing, Elsa was offered to three different organizations. The Connecticut State Police and Elsa were a match – they agreed that Elsa stood out and they took her for training. Jay explained that seeing a dog move on to its next owner is like “seeing your kids go off to school”.
Elsa soon began her new life, beginning a two-month training class (she was the only Labrador in her class of German Shepherds!). During the first month of training she worked on scenting with a trainer and in the second month, her future handler worked with her so they could form a bond and gain experience together. Elsa passed her training with flying colors, and Jay and his family proudly attended her graduation.
After graduation, Elsa immediately began her career as one of Connecticut’s newest canine state police officers. She didn’t waste any time – in fact, on her first day she assisted with a search!
Elsa continues to work hard and gets a lot of exercise – all that hard work creates a big appetite, and she eats 5 cups of food a day! Food is used as a training tool/reward, so she’s hand fed by her handler. When it comes time to retire, she’ll get a new shiny bowl to eat her meals (this transition will help her understand that her working days are over).
Are you interested in working with dogs? “You’re never too young!” says Jay. There are many organizations like Guiding Eyes for the Blind, and they welcome volunteers of all ages.