BY HOPE RACINE
There are few things that can cheer up a room faster than a puppy. Next year, students at the University of Mary Washington may get the thrill of playing with puppies every day.
Sophomore psychology major Rebekah Selbrede is championing the creation of a new program at UMW that will be associated with the national organization Canine Companions for Independence. The goal of the program is for students to raise two puppies who will go on to become CCI certified working dogs, and used for therapy purposes or as companions to those with disabilities.
“Right now we are a recognized student club, but we are still waiting on approval for the program. Without approval, we can’t do anything yet,” said Selbrede.
The group will obtain two puppies over the summer from CCI, which raises labrador and golden retrievers specifically for this purpose. Two students, including Selbrede and sophomore Abby Attannell, will be the main raisers who house the puppies and take on the financial responsibility for them.
Selbrede will raise her puppy on campus, in one of the UMW apartments specially designated for this purpose. Attannell will raise her puppy in a house off campus.
“The key to making this program work is getting the puppies this summer, so we have time to prepare them and train them, so that next year they will be conditioned and well behaved while on campus,” said Selbrede
The organization hopes to be able to fully socialize the dogs on campus, including taking them into student facilities and classes, at the professor’s discretion.
“One of the main concerns about having a dog in a classroom is allergies,” said Selbrede. “Since these puppies are service dogs in training, it’s a bit of a gray area. But if a student did have a fully certified service dog with them, you wouldn’t be able to ask them to take the dog out.”
Disability legislation mandates that service animals be allowed in all public facilities. In addition, Selbrede added that most allergies come not from actual dog hair but from dander. All CCI dogs are required to be groomed each day, removing any dander.
“We know that some professors are not going to want a dog in their classes though, because it might distract other students,” said Selbrede. Which is where the puppy sitters come in.
While Selbrede and Attannell will assume the full responsibility for the dogs, the organization is very eager to find students interested in babysitting the dogs while their raisers are in class or unavailable to bring them along.
“Obviously anyone who is interested in being a sitter is going to need to learn how to interact with a service dog so we can make sure that they are aware of the training process,” said Selbrede.
In addition to raising and sitting the puppies, CCI also aims to spread awareness about service dogs and how to interact with them.
“You see a puppy, you want to go and pet it, but we want people to know the basic rules for approaching a therapy dog. Any dog, really,” said Selbrede.
The dog will be on campus regularly so that they can may properly socialized.
“It’s a great way to socialize a dog and prepare it for its certification test. But it’s also a way to educate students as well about this really great program,” said Selbrede.
Dogs who are CCI certified can go into one of four branches of service. Some become service companions to adults who have disabilities and are trained to specifically turn on lights, open doors or pick up items. Other dogs can become “skilled companions” who work with minors or those who cannot give commands. These dogs will have an additional handler who helps the person with a disability and guides the dog.
Another branch of service is a facility dog, where the animal will go into schools, court houses or other public facilities. These dogs have a handler who will often bring them to work with children. According to Selbrede, there is a facility dog in Stafford who goes to the courthouse to help calm children who have to give testimony during court cases. The fourth, and most commonly seen service dog, is the hearing aid dog, which will alert its owner to sounds such as a doorbell or alarm.
According to Selbrede, 40 percent of all dogs who take the certification test pass. One of the concerns about approving the program is what happens to the dogs if they do not pass.
CCI keeps track of all its dogs, no matter what. If a puppy fails the test, there are three possibilities. Usually CCI will try to place the dog as a therapy dog or in the working sector as a search and rescue or detection dog. If that does not work, the dog is offered to go back to the raiser as a personal pet. If the raiser does not wish to adopt the dog, then CCI will offer the dog to one of the many people who sign up for waitlists to adopt a CCI trained dog.
While the organization is still waiting for approval, Selbrede and other members of the program are eager to answer questions or clear misconceptions about service dogs.
“It’s a great program, and its been instituted on several college campus around the states,” said Selbrede. “It would fit in well at UMW and would be great for the students and the dogs.”
BY HOPE RACINE