Group of Students Help Raise, Train Future Service Animals

Business administration sophomore Aubrey Rowan has been training her labrador Colby since May of this year. Photo by Amina Hussain | Mercury Staff

UTD students care for puppies to become skilled companion, facility dogs

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article misspelled a source’s name. The correct spelling is Aubrey Rowan. The Mercury regrets this error.

Amidst the bustle of sneakers and sandals on pavement is the steady tread of four paws directed to the same classes and buildings as students. 

These service dogs help UTD students with disabilities in their everyday lives. Heather Dragoo, the Americans with Disabilities Act Coordinator at UTD, said the university does not require a student to register their service dog. Service dogs fall under Title 2 of the ADA which allows a service dog to accompany their handler in all public spaces. 

“We, institutionally, recommend the student notify the Office of Student AccessAbility,” Dragoo said. “If there is some issue, whether it’s with the dog or with the setting, we are in the best position to be able to address it quickly if we know about it in advance.”

One student with a service dog is biomedical engineering freshman Jackson Winn who is accompanied by a black labrador named Tucker. Winn got Tucker when he was in sixth grade after being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. 

“Whenever I start getting stressed and spiraling into negative emotions, his job is nodding me out of that,” Winn said. “He’s very serious and laid back, but it’s very obvious when he’s concerned because he’ll be right up in my face or put his hand on my leg or lick me.”

Several students on campus are raising puppies that could eventually become service dogs. According to State of Texas Code Section 121.003i, service dogs in training are not denied entry to public settings when accompanied by an approved trainer. 

Biology freshman Jessica Loucks is a puppy-raiser on campus. She trains Reber, a ten-month-old yellow labrador, for Guide Dogs for the Blind, a non-profit organization that trains dogs for visually impaired individuals. She has been involved with the Dallas chapter of the organization since her freshman year of high school. 

“Since days are structured differently, I think it’s a little easier than high school because you have that eight-hour block day where you can’t take a break to train,” Loucks said. “I also found that there’s a lot more students here and a lot more people who have never seen or interacted with a service dog before, so I find myself explaining what I’m doing a lot.” 

Reber has been with Loucks for about a month and he is a transfer dog, a dog that started puppy training but could not stay with their previous trainer. When the dogs are young, Loucks said, puppy-raisers attend weekly training meetings, and once they are older, they attend monthly training meetings and outings.

“As puppy-raisers, we use positive reinforcement, so I always have a bag of kibble on my hip where anytime he does something I want him to or follows directions I give him a piece of kibble to let him know keep doing what you’re doing,” Loucks said. “I’ll find periods in the day where I do mini-trainings, but he’s always kind of training, learning to be calm and collected in a classroom environment.”

Loucks said she keeps the dogs until they are 1.5 years old, when they attend formal training. This consists of eight phases where they learn skills such as harness work and intelligent disobedience. Afterwards, the dogs are matched with guide dog handler applicants. 

“We have what’s called ‘graduation’ where you get to go back to campus and hand your dog off to their new handler,” Loucks said. “It’s like when you’re a parent and see your kid graduate from high school … mostly proud.”

Service Dogs in Training is an on-campus club that works with Canine Companions for Independence, a non-profit that trains assistance dogs for individuals with physical and hearing disabilities and as skilled companions and facility dogs.

Business Administration sophomore Aubrey Rowan joined SIT her freshman year and is Vice-President of the organization. Rowen is a puppy-raiser and got her first puppy, a five-month-old black Labrador named Colby, in June. 

“As a puppy-raiser, I do a lot of basic commands, so he’ll come out of my care with about 30 or so commands under his belt,” Rowan said. “The other big part is socialization, so I bring him around campus with me, and that’s what we are really in charge of making sure every experience he has is positive so he comes out with few fears and is comfortable.”

Rowan went through an application with Canine Companions to be a puppy-raiser. The application requires the individual be 18 years of age and be in good standing with the on-campus club. There is also a home visit where they meet your pets, roommates, and assess the applicant’s living situation. 

“They’re looking for someone who the dog will be their top priority and has a flexible enough schedule or living situation,” she said. “But I really think the biggest thing they’re looking for is someone who is devoted to the cause and feels that connection to it.” 

Once her application was accepted, Rowan was placed on a waiting list for a dog. In May, she received a call that a puppy was available, and she picked him up at the Canine Companions training center in Irving.

“They gave me an hour-long orientation for some basics but since I had been going to puppy class I kind of knew those things,”  she said. “Then they sent me home with him and a little booklet saying these are what to do the first four or five days and here’s a pamphlet of all the things you need to teach him eventually.”

Now the pair attend puppy classes every other week where they learn certain games and commands to train the puppies. 

“We work on a lot of food drops where you drop a bunch of food on the floor and they’re supposed to look at you,” Rowan said. “Each class we work on different commands, so last week we worked on recalls, dropping toys and going in and out of kennels.” 

One training tool Rowan uses is the gentle leader, a harness that attaches to Colby’s nose. It teaches him not to pull on the leash. 

“When I pull on it, it pulls his nose, so it’s a lot more sensitive and I don’t have to do as much to get his attention,” she said. “They don’t love it, but once they get better about it, we get to loosen it and it becomes less of an irritation.” 

After the puppy raising stage, Colby will undergo professional training which lasts about six to nine months with professional trainers. The last step of this process is called team training which occurs two weeks before graduation. 

“All of the people who have been accepted to receive a dog come into team training and meet different dogs and learn how to handle the dogs,” said Rowan. “They make pre-matches a few days in and the rest of the two weeks is spent creating those bonds with the animal.”

Rowan took on financial responsibility for Colby, so she pays for his food and toys while her parents agreed to pay for the larger vet bills.

“A lot of vets and stores have a really nice discount for dogs in training, so sometimes the vet bills aren’t as expensive,” Rowen said. “But Canine Companions does have a system in place where if your dog has a medical emergency that’s unexpected, you can contact them and they’ll have ways to figure out how to pay for it.”

Rowan registered Colby with the City of Richardson for his rabies vaccination, and since he is living on campus with her, she registered him with University Housing which included his vaccinations and her roommates’ acknowledgement of his presence.  

“Canine Companions does not consider Colby to be a ‘service dog in training’ or me to be his trainer, so what this means is that we rely on the goodwill of business owners for public access,” Rowan said. “If he was my service dog and serving me then I would go through the student office of accessibility, but since he’s not, I had to do a different process.”

Colby accompanies Rowan to most of her classes, but two of the places she does not take him to are her extracurriculars or exams. 

“I don’t take him anywhere I can’t devote attention to him,” she said. “As a puppy-raiser, we are a lot more vigilant and consistent about what we do with the dogs.”

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