Best Paws Forward Leader Dogs at the Symphony

Oboists, violinists, and other musicians tuning is one thing you expect to see at Orchestra Hall, but this season if you looked under the right four seats in the balcony, you might have been surprised to see Labrador and golden retrievers quietly enjoying their morning out at the show.

Meet Jarvis, Jovie, Hopper, and Sheldon, Leader Dogs in training, and faithful PNC Pops Coffee Concert attendees, brought by raisers who love live music, and felt so welcomed by DSO staff that they all decided to buy PNC Pops subscriptions.

"We are always looking for different positive experiences to expose our puppies to," says Leader Dog puppy raiser Kayla Dever. "Live music, crowds, and settling quietly in tight spaces are all important things. The DSO gives us all three, plus different surfaces, stairs, elevators, and heavy traffic on Woodward."

Leader Dogs for the Blind has been operating since 1939 with the mission of empowering people who are blind or visually impaired with lifelong skills for safe and independent daily travel via the training and placement of Leader Dogs.

Kayla has been training dogs for ten years, and now says being a puppy raiser is part of her identity. "I raise now because it is who I am. I love that I can directly see how the puppy I raised is helping someone who needs them. It is a uniquely direct form of service."

Puppy raiser Kayla Dever with Hopper, her 11th student.

Puppies in training do not have automatic access rights like fully trained service dogs do. This means raisers rely on businesses and organizations to allow them access in order to train and socialize their puppies: "We are incredibly grateful for all businesses, including the DSO, who allow us training access and recognize that we could not prepare these dogs for lives of service without their help," says Kayla.

What does it take to get the puppies to settle quietly under their seats in Orchestra Hall? Positive reinforcement goes a long way: "Whenever we expose our puppies to anything new or potentially scary, we use counter-conditioning. Basically, when the orchestra first started playing or the dogs heard an instrument, we gave them lots of food so that they would associate that sound with good things. Our pups are used to this game, so after a few pieces of kibble when the music starts, they are all pretty happy and relaxed. They love the music now, and most of them quickly settle in and fall asleep."

If you see a working dog at the DSO, what's the best way to help puppy raisers keep their charges focused? It's always best to ask before you interact with a dog. Sometimes in the right scenario you may be allowed to pet the puppy, but all raisers appreciate people who are understanding if they need to say "no", because the dog may be focusing on a particular task or might be working on ignoring people that day.

"Dogs love classical music, we even play it in our kennels at Leader Dog to help calm and soothe the dogs."

At the DSO, our #DSOImpact social progress initiative is committed to continuous dialogue and action that leverages the power of music to improve the quality of life for all people in greater Detroit. #DSOImpact is built on a foundation of inclusion, enrichment, and expression, and Leader Dogs for the Blind illustrate these principles in action. We hope to be visited soon by Jarvis, Jovie, Hopper, and Sheldon, all grown-up, leading their forever-humans to their seats.

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