Forget Joe College. The big guns on St Peter’s University’s campus in Jersey City are, well, dogs.
Wherever they go in their fashionable yellow vests, “students” Rainer, Murtagh and Hogan are sure to be surrounded by adoring fans hoping to bask, if only briefly, in the pups’ puppy-ness.
But make no mistake. Just like their bipedal classmates, these dogs are at school to learn.
Service dogs-in-training, the pups are raised for a year-and-a-half through the college’s Puppy Club with the goal of someday being paired with someone with a disability ranging from hearing loss and paralysis to autism and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Two-month-old Rainer is the freshman while Murtagh has an extra month under his belt and 19-month-old Hogan, no longer a puppy, graduated on Valentine’s Day and ready to leave this loving pack.
“It’s an investment of time, love, ’’ said sophomore Cynthia Garcia of Somerset, who co-raises Murtagh with sophomore Ivan Aquino of Jersey City, the United States, “to make a product that will help the world and community.’’
The programme was the brainchild of chemistry professor Patricia Redden, who became a puppy-raiser through Canine Companions for Independence’s Northeast chapter back in 2008.
As a full, tenured professor, she confides she had a little more leeway than she might otherwise to bring her succession of puppies-in-training on campus and to campus events like games and theatrical productions. Seeing the overwhelmingly positive student reaction and knowing the importance of companion dogs, she began looking for a way to have students be puppy-raisers, too.
It took a few years, but approval for an official Puppy Club came in the 2016-17 school year, and dogs in yellow training vests have been a common sight on campus ever since.
“We get the puppies when they’re eight weeks old, and we raise them for a year-and-a-half, ’’ Redden said.
One of seven colleges with programmes through Canine Companions’ Northeast chapter, the SPU programme is currently the only one in New Jersey, CCI Northeast Puppy Programme Manager Debbie Knatz said. (Rutgers has previously participated, she said.)
In all, 18 of the chapter’s 205 puppies are being raised on college campuses, she said, calling it a win-win-win for the students, campuses and dogs.
“It gives them a little bit of responsibility, and it gives them a fuzzy friend to hang out with, ’’ she said of the student raisers.
The dogs serve as stress-relievers for others on campus, she said, and being on campus exposes the dogs to varied situations.
“It’s a really great place for the puppies to grow up, ’’ she said, likening college campuses to mini-cities.
There are stairs, elevators, crowded places, quiet places, places like lecture halls where the dogs have to stay in the “down’’ position for an hour or more.
“Through it all, they have to focus on their handler, ’’ she said, a skill that will be so important later on when the dogs are each paired with a disabled person.
At SPU, the puppies live in dorms or at home with their raisers, who teach them 30 commands, attend puppy-training classes with them, socialise them and get them used to being in a variety of places.
“He’s been to the grocery store, the mall, restaurants, to the city, ’’ Hogan’s raiser, senior Carolina Ruiz of Miami, said, ticking off the types of places she’s visited with him by her side.
On the PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson) train, he knows to go under the seat for the duration of the trip, she said.
With the permission of the teacher, and if no one in class has an allergy, the puppies can attend human classes with their raisers, but they’re not allowed in science labs or art studios for safety reasons, Redden said. They’ve even been spotted on the treadmill alongside their raisers at the gym and they’re a definite hit at Peacocks’ and Peahens’ basketball, volleyball and soccer games.
“The Office of Residence Life has been very supportive of the programme and sets aside designated puppy-raiser apartments that meet the needs of taking care of the dogs, ’’ said Jan Reimer, director for leadership and engagement for SPU’s Center for Leadership, Engagement and Orientation. “Our campus community has really rallied around the programme and our canines have achieved celebrity status as they walk through campus with many students and staff volunteering to take the dogs for a walk or play catch to give the puppy-raiser a break.”
The effort has extended into the community as well, Redden said, with Bayonne veterinarian Philip Frezzo donating all of the medical services for the dogs. Add to that the fact that Canine Companions has a grant that pays for the dogs’ food, it’s feasible for students to take on the raiser mantle.
The training is treat-based, Redden said, giving Rainer tidbits to focus his attention to a laser lock.
“As they get older, you take away the treats, ’’ she said.
So far, only one of the SPU dogs hasn’t gone on to get the blue vest of a working companion dog. Golden-Lab mix Ella had a little too much Golden – aka “poor impulse control’’ -- in her personality, Redden said, so Ella now lives with Redden as a pet.
Hard as it is to give up the graduating dogs, though, that’s what each of the raisers wants.
“I hope he gets to help someone, ’’ Aquino said of Murtagh.
Redden, who has two adult paraplegic children, knows many people who have benefited greatly from companion dogs.
“When you see what a difference it makes, ’’ she said, it makes it bearable to give the dog you’ve raised back to CCI.
For the profoundly deaf who cannot hear a doorbell or phone or alarm, the dog gives peace of mind. For someone who uses a wheelchair, the dog becomes their arms. When the companionship of a dog gives an autistic child the confidence and ability to be out of the house or to speak, seeing that, “Yeah, I can raise and give up, ’’ she said.
Once they graduate the initial programme and leave their SPU puppy-raisers, the dogs go to CCI on Long Island for six to nine months of professional training. Those who graduate from that training are matched with someone who needs a service dog and undergo two weeks of intensive training specific to that person.
About half of the dogs will eventually make it and get the blue cape, Redden said. Those who don’t are offered first to their puppy-raisers, she said.
A non-profit with six training centres throughout the country, CCI provides assistance dogs at no cost to the people who eventually get them and relies on volunteer breeders and volunteer puppy-raisers like the SPU folks to do the initial basic obedience training.
On campus, the puppies draw people like magnets, which, ever the teacher, Redden sees as a way to spread awareness.
“It brings up the whole question of disability, ’’ she said.
Seeing Hogan with his puppy-raisers inspired Garcia and Aquino to team up and co-raise Murtagh – Garcia in her dorm and Aquino at home with his family.
Now, they’re the ones inspiring others, and not just fellow students who want to learn what they’re up to.
“People with disabilities come up to you, ’’ Garcia said, and thank them for the contribution they’re making.
Erin McCann, vice president of student life and development at SPU, echoed that sentiment.
“This programme is an excellent example of our students ‘being men and women for others’, ” she said. – Tribune News Service/nj.com/Margaret Schmidt
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