Four members of the 4Paws house with canine member

Blarney, the service dog in training, is the center of attention with his mentors (clockwise from lower left) Maddie Flynn, Colleen Compliment, Heidi Strike, and Rachel Sell on the front steps of their program house on campus.

 

College Serves as Training Ground for Quartet of Service Dogs

Four canines learn how to interact with others and behave appropriately in public setting

10 November, 2014 by John Finn

WOOSTER, Ohio – Blarney, Yoshie, Walt, and Risa are almost certainly the most popular members of the first-year class at The College of Wooster...and they're pretty bright, too. In fact, they are on course to graduate well before their fellow classmates, even though they won't earn a traditional four-year degree.

These four campus residents are actually Golden Retrievers (or variations thereof) who are spending time on campus this semester to learn more about socializing and appropriate public behavior as part of 4Paws for Ability, an organization based in Xenia, Ohio that trains service dogs to assist young children and veterans.

"These dogs are incredibly well mannered and loving," said Maddie Flynn, a senior communication sciences and disorders major from Cincinnati who learned about the program from her aunt — a volunteer for the past seven years. "The campus really loves them."

Indeed, the four have endeared themselves to students, staff, faculty, and even President Cornwell and his wife, Peg, who have offered their fenced-in backyard as a place for the dogs to train, play, and get some exercise.

Eventually these dogs, each of which is currently 7-8 months old, will become certified service dogs through 4Paws. But for now, the mission for Flynn and her fellow students is to help the dogs adjust to a variety of environments, particularly educational settings because many will be placed with children whom they will accompany to school.

Flynn and three of her classmates — Heidi Strike, Rachel Sell, and Colleen Compliment — watch over Blarney, teaching him how to behave around others, and helping others learn how to behave around him.

"We want people on campus to interact with the dogs, but to first ask permission," said Strike, a senior anthropology major from Northfield, Minn. "The more people who come in contact with the dogs, the better prepared the dogs will be for their assignments."

Each of the other three dogs has four female mentors who are involved in the same mission through separate program houses on campus. "We're all animal lovers," said Strike, "and we are all very committed to the cause of the organization."

Since arriving on campus at the beginning of the semester, these four-footed friends have done exceptionally well, save for an occasional temptation to chase a squirrel or beg for food in the dining hall. When that happens, the mentors step in and encourage the dog to replace inappropriate behavior with appropriate behavior. "We're very big on being positive and supportive," said Strike.

At the end of the semester, the dogs will return to Xenia — a bittersweet moment for their mentors — where they will begin specific service training, but there will be a brief reunion in June when the dogs graduate and are placed with a child or veteran. "It's difficult to let go; you get very attached," said Flynn, "but it will be really cool to see the dogs meet the individuals they will be serving, and know that we had a part in that process. It really makes what we're doing worthwhile."

Next semester, four new dogs will come to campus, and the process will begin again, after which Flynn and Strike will have graduations of their own, but before they leave, they hope to build a foundation that will keep the program going...and growing.