Service pup training club gets three eager new pupils


Photo courtesy of Caroline Cox

The Panthers’ Service Pups club is about to get three new 8-week-old puppies to raise and train.

By Ashton Crawley, Staff Writer

Caroline Cox is graduating in the spring, but she’s about to get a new roommate — an 8-month-old puppy. Cox will spend her last months on campus raising a service dog through the Panthers’ Service Pups club.

The club — where Pitt students raise and train service dogs — was originally founded in 2017 but reregistered with a new parent organization this past semester. The group will receive three puppies to raise on Friday. The dogs will go everywhere with their trainers for a year and a half.

The new puppies, Iverson III, Koji II and Kaptain II, come from Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit based in Santa Rosa, California. The student trainers will head to the Pittsburgh International Airport on Friday morning to pick them up after their long trip.

According to Cox, a senior studying social work, the club has been steadily growing since it was founded, and members hope it will continue to grow throughout the upcoming semesters.

“I think it’s about to get a lot bigger. There’s so much interest for it,” Cox said.

CCI, founded in 1975, places dogs with people free of charge — one of the main reasons the Panthers’ Service Pups club wanted to affiliate with the organization, according to Katie Carr.

Carr, a sophomore studying public and professional writing, joined the club, which was originally named Perfect Fit Canines Campus Scholars after their previous partner, as a first-year. Carr is now the social media officer for the club and will be co-raising one of the new puppies. She has some previous experience with animal therapy through her work at Hope on Horseback, a therapeutic riding equestrian center for people with physical or mental disabilities.

“They use a lot of the same desensitization techniques for horses. I thought that some of those skills would come in handy. And plus — who doesn’t want to spend time with a cute puppy?” Carr said.

After receiving the puppies, the trainers will go everywhere with them for about a year and a half. The majority of the training will consist of teaching the dogs name recognition, basic commands and socialization so that the dogs become used to being in public, including in classrooms and other places around campus. Because the dogs are so young, special training techniques must be used.

“You have to make everything super exciting, by tapping your feet or raising your voice a little bit — anything to get them engaged,” Carr said.

In conjunction with training the puppies, the main goal of the club is to educate the public about therapy dogs and service dogs and the etiquette surrounding them. It can often be challenging to train the puppies when students constantly want to pet them.

“Not a lot of people know about proper service dog etiquette or the difference between therapy dogs and emotional support dogs,” Carr said.

Therapy dogs are more for providing comfort to their owner whereas service dogs help a person who has a disability such a seizure disorder or diabetes. Emotional support dogs are there to be companions to their owners.

The distinction between the different types of dogs is important to many members of the club, including Cox, who has been part of the service dog club since fall 2018. She’s excited to be raising one of the new puppies and to help spread awareness of service dog etiquette.

“I think people get confused sometimes because you always have to ask [before petting the dog]. That’s just one of those things that as it gets bigger and people know more about it they’ll know to just ask,” Cox said.

Lily Swanson, a junior studying history and psychology, also joined the club in fall 2018. Swanson will receive a puppy to train in March.

“It helps me to destress by having animals around too,” Swanson said.

After the puppies have been with their trainers for about a year and a half and learned about 30 commands, they will go back to CCI for an initial screening and then advanced training. The service dog program is very selective and only 55% of dogs make it through the training and are actually placed with a person.

“We’ve realized that failure is okay. Not every dog is meant to do it,” Cox said.

Puppies are carefully chosen for the trainers to make sure they’re a good fit for their lifestyle. Normally, training candidates must wait about nine to 12 months to receive a dog, but college students are normally given priority and don’t have to wait quite as long, Swanson said. In total, the club has about 30 active members, five of whom will be raising the new puppies. The others will help watch the dogs and learn from other service dog trainers in the area.

“They’ll take the dogs who didn’t make it through the program and they’ll try to find places and they’ll be assistive dogs or therapy dogs. So they really try to utilize their resources in any way that can be helpful,” Swanson said.

The dogs who make it through the program should be very well socialized, have no fear of being in public or around other dogs, are friendly with people and are focused, Cox said. The dogs can be trained for multiple specific purposes.

“They see different dogs and what they’re really good at and if they have the right temperament for things. They can specialize in so many ways,” Swanson said. “There are hearing service dogs, dogs for veterans. It’s so cool. Their broad goal is just to help people.”

After finishing their training back at CCI in California, the puppies graduate from the program. Once they’re finally placed with a person, they go through the leash ceremony in which the trainer hands off the puppy’s leash to their new owner.

“It’s amazing what an animal can do for a human. It’s a lot of commitment but to see the end result is truly amazing,” Swanson said.