Toledo students will train pups for service, therapy work

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — The University of Toledo will soon have students of a different variety — the furry, adorable, four-legged kind.

Danielle Tscherne of Toledo, who has a master’s degree in sociology and will finish a second master’s in criminal justice this semester, is leading the organization of a new student group that will partner with Assistance Dogs for Achieving Independence of Sylvania to raise and train puppies for service and therapy work.

The puppies will live full time with group members for a year or more to grow up while being thoroughly socialized and trained in obedience and how to behave in public.

“The students will be doing the majority of the training for a while,” Tscherne said. “Then they’ll go back to ADAI for more intensive training.”

Rocket Service Dogs will be modeled after a similar group at the University of Kentucky. Wildcat Service Dogs formed in 2011, and has partnered with the assistance dogs group for several years.

“It’s basically a service organization,” said Kimberley Arnett, director of community services for the assistance dogs group. “It has been very successful. We’ve had five dogs come from them that are either in the process of or have graduated as service dogs.”

The student groups are extensions of the assistance dog group’s network of foster homes for dogs that will go on to become service or therapy dogs for people with disabilities. More fosters means more canines can be provided to those who need them.

“We are always in need of fosters,” Arnett said. “It’s definitely a big commitment.”

The fledgling group at the University of Toledo will spend the spring and summer semesters organizing, recruiting, and training students to become puppy sitters and dog trainers.

Each student will be extensively screened and must spend a full semester as a puppy sitter caring for program dogs when trainers are unavailable before becoming a trainer.

“We’re all starting off on the same level right now,” Tscherne said. “We’re hoping to have a few sitters throughout the summer semester so when fall comes around, they are working toward that trainer position so we can introduce new students at the sitter level.”

Arnett said the assistance dogs group hopes to place three puppies with Toledo students by the fall semester.

The idea for the group came about after associate social work professor Janet Hoy-Gerlach’s human-animal interaction class visited the assistance dog group’s training center last semester and learned of the Kentucky student group.

“The students got very excited and wanted to do that here,” Hoy-Gerlach said. “I know they have a bit of a wait list for service animals, and they are always looking for foster homes.”

Hoy-Gerlach has been a foster for the assistance dogs group before and is the faculty adviser for Rocket Service Dogs. She noted the group will facilitate friendships among students, as well as promote awareness because the dogs will be very visible with their student trainers as they attend classes and other activities.

“It’s going to definitely have a ripple effect in terms of raising awareness of the importance of accessibility and the role dogs can play in that,” she said.

Because federal law grants service dogs in training the same access rights as fully fledged service animals, the puppies will be able to live and travel with the students virtually everywhere on campus. But very young puppies will not be out and about right away.

“Starting off, they can’t go to classes with them until they are fully potty trained,” Tscherne said.

Members of the group will be required to attend weekly training classes with the dogs, in addition to regular group outings to socialize the dogs.

The community service work may prove valuable for students’ resumes, but group members will also benefit by learning dedication, commitment, and persistence, Tscherne said. Dog-training experience doesn’t hurt either, whether it applies to students’ careers or personal lives.

“There are going to be growing pains and setbacks getting started,” she said. “But it will be fun for students, and we know a lot of people will benefit from it.”