Updated: Sep 12, 2019
For a campus so passionate about their beloved Cats, one would think that a natural rivalry with dogs would occur. But at the University of Kentucky, the two species seem to co-exist, especially in the classroom, where students and service dogs in training are learning together.
The dogs aren’t in class to learn how to write term papers or to better understand organic chemistry.
“Having dogs in class teaches the dogs patience, which is something that they will use every single day as a service dog. It is so important that these dogs receive plenty of socialization, and I think that a college campus is a great place for a dog to socialize,” said Abby Sheeler, president of 4 Paws at the University of Kentucky.
Two campus organizations, Wildcat Service Dogs and 4 Paws for Ability, are making this possible, pairing students with puppies to train in hopes that the latter will learn the skills necessary to one day be paired with a “forever person.”
“We are both organizations that have a passion for animals and helping individuals with disabilities,” Sheeler said.
Besides outfitting their program dogs in different colored vests (4 Paws dogs wear mostly red and WSD dogs wear blue), the main difference between the respective programs is that 4 Paws is a nationwide program, and the larger of the two. WSD is a UK-only program and is completely student funded, explaining why they only have four current program dogs, as compared to 4 Paws’ 57.
“I started out in WSD because I missed my own dogs and thought it would be fun to play with puppies in my dorm,” said Emma Rhodes, a previous puppy trainer and current president of Wildcat Service Dogs. “But once I learned what the organization was about, I fell in love with puppy raising and the vast improvements these dogs make to the lives of the people who need them.”
Wildcat Service Dogs pairs their Golden Retriever or Labrador Retriever puppies with trainers beginning between eight and 12 weeks old. These trainers, all of whom are college students, must finance the animal’s food, grooming, toys and some veterinary bills. They are also responsible for socializing, training and housing their service dog partner, to provide them with obedience training that will equip them to transition into a specialized service track. And a partnership it truly is.
“WSD’s tagline is ‘helping students, help dogs, help people, one paw at a time,’ and that really encompasses everything that we hope to achieve as an organization,” said Brenna Kirkpatrick, WSD’s vice president.
Following their completion of the WSD program over their first 10 to 12 months of life, the Wildcat Service Dogs will move to advanced training at the Assistance Dogs for Achieving Independence partner facility in Sylvania, Ohio, where they will receive a year of advanced training before being placed with their “forever person.” WSD dogs have become mobility assistance dogs, skilled in-home companions and bomb detection dogs.
4 Paws for Ability is a non-profit organization that breeds, trains and places service dogs with children and veterans with disabilities, specializing with these two groups as they are most often turned down by other service dog organizations. Following a timeline similar to that of WSD, 4 Paws trainers receive their dog between 10 weeks and four months and keep them for 10 to 12 months before they are evaluated for advanced task training.
With the motto “Taking the dis out of disability,” 4 Paws places Alzheimer assistance dogs, autism assistance dogs, diabetic alert dogs, FASD assistance dogs, facilitated guide dogs, hearing ear dogs, mobility assistance dogs, multipurpose assistance dogs, seizure assistance dogs and veteran assistance dogs. Student puppy-raisers are the key to getting dogs started on the path to fulfilling these needs, by socializing the dogs and working on basic obedience.
“We want to make sure our dogs are used to every noise, surrounding, person and environment possible so when they go onto advanced training, they are confident dogs,” Sheeler said.
For both training programs, learning doesn’t stop with the dogs, but also includes educating the public. Students involved in both programs play a significant role in normalizing the presence of service dogs on the UK campus and in the community, in hopes that the public understands the work that these animals do. This includes helping to clarify the definition of a service animal.
“One of our goals as an organization is to increase awareness of the differences between service animals, therapy animals, and emotional support animals…” Kirkpatrick said. “We emphasize to our members that not all disabilities are visible and that we support the working animal community as a whole.”
Members of these organizations also work to speak out against the negative consequences that fake service animals can have on real service dogs and the perception of these animals. Rhodes said that when untrained dogs are brought into public places that service dogs are granted access to, it can cause people to discriminate against the real dogs.
“There is no legal registry and dogs don’t need any kind of identification, so there is no legal way to prevent people from buying their pets a vest and bringing them in public. The only real way to stop it is to keep trying to educate and spread awareness as much as possible,” she said.
Sheeler said those at her organization see untrained service dogs all the time.
“It’s extremely frustrating that people do not understand the time, money and training that go into these dogs to become service dogs. It’s not about having a dog by your side; a service dog is much more than that,” Sheeler said.
Educating the public in this way fosters widespread awareness of the roles of service animals. Bringing the dogs into the college classroom helps to do just that. In doing so, WSD and 4 Paws have led to widespread acceptance of program dogs on campus. And for the students involved in these programs, it’s a chance to share their love for helping others with the rest of campus.
“I have a passion for working with individuals with disabilities and working with animals, and this organization allowed me to collide my two passions into one program,” Sheeler said.
Story Written by Emily Baehner