Promising Puppies: What it Takes to Train a Service Dog

by Brianna Saucier

You’ve seen them around campus: the adorable furry animals wearing bright red vests that steal the hearts of everyone they meet.

K9s at the Ville has hosted numerous events over the years, including Pause for Paws, which takes place during finals to de-stress college students with puppy love, and Pupperoni Night (now Pawsta Night), which combined dinner with furry companions. The org will also make an appearance at the October ALT night.

K9s at the Ville is a nonprofit organization on campus that represents the much larger organization 4Paws for Ability, a global organization that trains dogs to become service animals for children and veterans with disabilities. 4Paws has student programs nationwide in almost every state and major university.

K9s at the Ville gives students the unique opportunity to train service dogs for those who struggle with seizures, autism, diabetes, hearing disabilities, fetal alcohol syndrome or impaired mobility. Anna Webner, president of K9s, said this chance to make a difference is what inspired her to join.

Anna teaches Getty new tricks, such as a handshake. Photo by Macey Wymer

“It was very rewarding to know I was a part of that,” Webner said. “It is really cool to still hear from [the dogs’ new families] after graduation and be able to know that the hard work we put in goes towards something really meaningful.”

There are currently three trainees from K9s at the Ville on campus: 4-month-old Getty, 8-month-old Elton and 16-month-old Dundee.

“They are a lot like kids; you have them all the time and they’re your responsibility,” said volunteer coordinator and super senior Stony Akins. “Sometimes they can be stinkers. You have the same conversations as you would with a child, like, ‘I told you to go to the bathroom before we left!’”

Once the puppies grow up and finish their stint at Cedarville, they go on to advanced training where they get specially trained for a child or veteran to handle their unique needs. Some may become breeders for future service dogs. If one of the dogs “flunks” the advanced training, they can be adopted by a family or become a therapy or emotional support dog instead.

Being around other students can help the dogs adjust to social situations so they can build confidence and practice maintaining focus on their owner. As puppies, they are taught to ignore distractions so they can respond in an emergency.

There are three ways to get involved: as a volunteer, sitter or handler. Volunteers help with organizing events like Pause for Paws and Pawsta Night, and they travel to the local 4Paws kennel in Xenia to walk, bathe or play with the puppies. K9s at the Ville provides weekly rides to the kennel for those who do not have their own transportation.

A sitter takes care of the dog when its handler is not available, such as during a lab or soccer practice. Sitters must have volunteered with the organization for at least 10 hours.

Handlers have full-time care of a dog during its one- to two-year stay at Cedarville until they are ready for their advanced training elsewhere. They take their assigned dog everywhere: chapel, class, grocery shopping, etc. The more exposure to various environments, the more training and confidence the dog gains. Handlers must have at least 20 hours of experience with the organization in other roles before they are eligible to apply.

At night, the dogs can stay at one of the two available units in Maddox with their handler or a sitter. There are not yet any male dorms to accommodate them, but off-campus housing could be used if needed.

As adorable as the dogs look in their uniforms, handlers ask that students remember that they are training to save a child’s life, and to please not touch or pet the dog without asking. Something as simple as grabbing the dog’s tail without permission can make them nervous or cause them to fail their advanced training.

“You wouldn’t want it happening to you, so don’t give the dog a bad experience that could hurt them later,” said senior handler Mckenzie Brittenham.

That doesn’t mean all interaction with the dogs is off the table, Webner said. It’s just important to go about it respectfully.

“Socialization is good for them, we want people to interact with them so they can be happy and confident around people … but we also need people to ask,” Webner said. “You can pet them. It just needs to be done the right way.”

Akins maintains focus on the real reason K9s at the Ville exists: While hanging out with adorable puppies is amazing, the org’s primary purpose is to be a ministry to the families who will go on to receive the dogs after their time at Cedarville is done.

“Some of the best and most impactful ministry I have ever had has been on graduation day when you are talking to these families,” said Akins. “It’s a really extensive and heart-opening opportunity for the families and us.”

Both students and faculty are encouraged to get involved and email for when they officially start up on September 23.

Brianna Saucier is a junior Psychology major. When she’s not being carded by Gamestop for looking 15 she enjoys roller coasters, photography, “Criminal Minds,” and traveling.


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