Teaching Aiden to aid: student trains service dog


Aiden, an almost 4-month-old black lab, continues to work toward becoming a certified service dog. (Courtesy by Instagram account @Aiden_the_service_pup)

Four legs, floppy ears and a wet nose don’t seem to be the usual description of someone who is equipped to help with disabilities, but in the case of Aiden the puppy, this description is just enough when paired with two years of training.

Aiden, an almost 4-month-old black lab, is training with Emma Oaks, a junior chemistry major, to someday work full-time as a certified service dog. Aiden doesn’t quite know his role yet, but he will someday offer support and assistance to a child or adult in need.

Oaks joined Perfect Fit Canines as a puppy raiser, which means she will raise Aiden for the first two years of his life. During that time, Perfect Fit Canines and Oaks will work together to socialize and train Aiden — a big part of which is simply exposing Aiden to as many new things as possible.

On an average day, Aiden accompanies Oaks from her home in Squirrel Hill to class and with her when she runs errands.

“I try to spend at least an hour on just obedience training at home,” Oaks said. “I put him on a leash in the living room and I have my treat pouch ready — and he’s leashed — and I step on it pretty short so that he has to kind of focus. We do just basic commands then.”

On the puppy’s official instagram, Oaks documented Aiden conquering a recent challenge — riding escalators. And Aiden may someday need to assist a child in a classroom or an adult in a workplace, situations to which the courtesies and behaviors he learns while out in the world will apply.

Inspired by the death of her family dog, Oaks raised a service dog during her senior year of high school. Later in college, she was encouraged by Holly Hickling, the community outreach adviser of Pitt’s Honors College, to continue this passion. Oaks first attempted to build a student organization her first year at Pitt, but ran into a few obstacles.

Susquehanna Service Dogs, the organization through which she raised her first dog, wasn’t interested in collaborating because of their distance from campus. Through further research Oaks was able to find Perfect Fit Canines — located only 20 minutes from the city — to back her future student organization.

According to Susan Wagner, founder of Perfect Fit Canines, the organization has trained dogs to support individuals with heart disease, psychological injuries, balance issues, autism and other disabilities. The group was first inspired eight years ago by Wagner’s husband’s experience as a counselor for autistic children, and has since expanded to assist individuals with many other disabilities.

The organization doesn’t have a designated kennel and instead relies on puppy raisers, such as Oaks, to raise their service dogs in training. Their network of trainers fluctuates, but Perfect Fit Canines typically trains 15 to 20 puppies at a time. Wagner firmly believes college students can fill that puppy raiser role quite well.

“One of our most successful dogs was raised by a girl that went to James Madison. She lived in a sorority — [the puppy] lived there with her. She went to class with her everyday — she went everywhere with her,” Wagner said, “It has great appeal to students on many, many campuses.”

Oaks enjoys having Aiden in her life and finds the work overwhelmingly rewarding, as she hopes he will eventually help people with disabilities, but the rigorous training Aiden needs can be stressful.

“It’s easy to forget that he’s a baby,” Oaks said. “It definitely does get frustrating, but since he’s my second dog, I’ve learned a little bit about the frustration and how to handle the temper tantrums they throw.”

Beyond the challenges that naturally come with raising a service dog, there has been some pushback from the community — bus drivers are often stubborn about not letting Aiden on board and some of Oaks’ professors have embraced him much more than others.

This is a problem facing many people both training and living with service dogs. Both active and training service dogs are allowed to occupy public spaces and rented housing by the Americans with Disabilities Act and Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, but there is still extensive education that needs to be done on the rights and courtesies that go along with service dogs.

And Perfect Fit Canines is trying to provide that education. Ella Cook, a junior anthropology major, is the vice president of the future Pitt student branch of Perfect Fit Canines. She said they still hope to involve students as puppy raisers, but one of the main goals of the organization is to educate the campus population and beyond.

“A big part of what we want to do is educate, because obviously not everyone can raise a service dog. We want to talk to people about it, show how beneficial it can be. I think that’s going to be a bigger focus of what we do eventually,” Cook said.

The student branch of Perfect Fit Canines is still going through the process of becoming an official University club. They are currently drafting a constitution and collecting a list of potential members who have expressed interest.

Both the student organization and Aiden himself have a bit of growth before them in the coming months. Cook and Oaks are currently working through establishing bylaws and memberships, and Aiden is still figuring out how to better maneuver the difficult and demanding life of a service dog but in the meantime he’s already helping to brighten the life of one Pitt student.

“Even though I don’t need him medically, I kind of need him emotionally,” Oaks said. “He definitely has impacted my life very positively.”