Aerosmith has arrived on campus. So have Etta, Draconis and Chevy too.
They’re not high-energy musical acts. They’re high-energy puppies being trained to become service dogs for children with disabilities across the country.
Last quarter, service dog training at Wright State officially launched with a pilot program, three pups and three students volunteering to foster the dogs during their training. Deemed a success, it continues this spring with four new canines and the help of 4 Paws for Ability, an assistance dog placement agency based in Xenia, Ohio.
“One of the most exciting and beneficial things to our service dogs that Wright State has that other colleges don’t have as much of is the community of students that also have disabilities,” said Jessa Brown, an instructor at 4 Paws.
Brown has played a role in placing about 300 service dogs with children who have disabilities. The agency has trained and placed about 600 since 1998.
Service dogs are trained best in public places with a wide array of environmental settings, and exposure to many different kinds of people. It’s particularly important that the animals are comfortable in school settings for long periods of time, as many will accompany youngsters in the classroom.
Agencies like 4 Paws are quickly learning that college campuses fit their training needs perfectly, and schools like Wright State that already feature a robust accessibility culture are an even greater fit.
“We’re not only allowing the use of service dogs, but we’re providing the proper support, and now we’re partnering with agencies to create more service animals,” said Jeff Vernooy, Wright State’s director of disability services.
Wright State is the only college in the country that has a dog park built specifically for service dogs. Vernooy says the park was opened because this community recognizes that service animals can be just as important to a person with a disability as a cane.
Students who volunteer to foster the dogs are given a puppy 5–7 months in age and are expected to care for the animal for 16 weeks. The dogs receive basic obedience training, potty training and command training before they are fostered, but have almost no experience working as a service dog.
Senior Information Systems student Alex Campbell has been training dogs since she was 10. The service dog-training program may turn out to be part of her legacy at Wright State. Last spring in a course that required service-learning, she reached out to 4 Paws and got the ball rolling on campus.
“It’s really simple in some ways, and very difficult in others,” said Campbell of training service dogs. “It is a big responsibility. 8 a.m.-6 p.m. is a long day, especially for a puppy.”
One of the most difficult challenges in training service dogs can be teaching the puppy that there’s a time and place for play. Docile breeds like retrievers are commonly used (as will be the case with three of the animals on campus during the next training session), but German Shepherds are not uncommon, nor are smaller dogs that can be more convenient with their size and eating habits.
Brown beams at the idea of the unique exposure Wright State has to offer, with so many accessibility features built into the campus landscape.
“A lot of the students work on getting the dogs trained to open the handicap buttons by hitting the button; and obviously, if you’re in an environment where there aren’t many handicap buttons, that’s going to be harder to do,” said Brown.
Brown says matching the right dog with the right student is crucial to the training.
“I’m happy to place dogs with whoever would like to foster, as long as they are a right fit for the program regardless of abilities, and as long as they are able to care for the dog,” said Brown. “Matching the right schedule, home environment and mindset are musts.”
It’s a big commitment, but interest is certainly growing on campus said Campbell.
While many students respond to the Wright State call to action Raider up!, don’t be surprised to see more dogs on campus in the coming year as more students elect to volunteer their time and Raider pup!