CSA Dog Days
Thursday, March 13, 20142 Comments
Chevy, taking a break in the puppy break room.
James Windland with Margaret, a therapy dog with St. John's Therapy Dog Services
Trainers Rachel Helder (left) with Vitus, and Jenny Lee (right) with Valley
Darla, Yenta, Vitus and Boa
Volunteer trainers talking to students about their work.
Students taking pictures with the puppies by donation.
On March 5, the Central Student Association organized the “Dog Days” event to promote awareness and education about the different organizations involved with training guide dogs, the unique services they provide for their clients, as well as some of the best practices in approaching the dogs. The event saw an attendance of over 630 students and successfully raised over $500 for the various organizations that were present.
Co-organizers of Dog Days, Julia Forster, Academic and University Commissioner of CSA, and Samantha Jones, a Student Senator of the Student Senate Caucus who is also a third year studying Applied Human Nutrition, spent about a semester’s worth of time in the planning stages. They worked in collaboration with Dr. Andy Robinson; Chair of the Animal & Poultry Sciences at the University of Guelph, to make sure the event complied with the Animal Utilization Protocols (AUP). “It was a rigorous process but was essential to ensure that the event is ethical, humane, and safe” said Dr. Robinson.
There were four different organizations present at the event: Autism Dog Services (ADS), National Service Dogs (NSD), Lion’s Foundation and St. John’s Therapy Dog Services and for three hours, Peter Clark Hall was filled with the sound of students’ aw-ing, giggling and cuddling, but there were more serious issues that needed to be addressed. “There are currently about 30 students volunteering as a service dog trainer,” said Forster, “these volunteers dedicate a lot of time and commitment into raising these puppies”. Jones added that “[being a trainer] is a full time job and the roles that both these volunteers and dogs play, are incredibly valuable”.
Jenny Lee, who is in her third year studying Zoology, and Rachel Helder, who is also in her third year studying Accounting, both cited that raising the puppies were similar to the likes of raising a child. “It was really tiring, having to constantly get up during the night to take my dog Vitus out to the bathroom” said Helder. “There is a big time commitment, I had to go to puppy classes for the first six months when I started to raise Valley” said Lee.
Many students attending the event took this opportunity to ask about becoming a service dog trainer. “I’m really interested in volunteering with NSD because my friends that have worked with them testified that they have a really supportive network and so I am seriously considering taking part in the program” said Eric Ignatz, who is in his third year studying Animal Biology, “however, I need to be sure that I will have the time to do this because I want to commit 100 per cent”.
In addition to the time the trainers are committed to, they often have to put up with students who are often unaware of the work involved with raising the puppies. “We wanted to organize a fun event, but also wanted to address some of these main issues regarding the volunteer trainers on campus. As cute as the dogs are, it is really important to keep in mind to respect the trainers and not interfere with their work or distract the puppies” said Forster.
Jordan Pelkmans, who is in her 3rd year pursuing a degree in Bio-Med and has been volunteering as a service dog trainer since her second year, shared that she’d “…like to see the attitude towards the puppies change”. Pelkmans is currently volunteering to raise a chocolate Labrador name Houston with Autism Dog Services (ADS). “I’m hoping to teach people at this event that if a puppy raiser says it’s not okay to pet their dog, it’s not personal. Sometimes Houston won’t be focusing on his work well enough to handle an extra distraction and it is really important that he is in a working mindset before additional distractions are introduced. So it may just be a bad time but you are welcome to ask another day!” Lee also emphasized how crucial it is for students to know when not to interfere with the training. “When you are petting the dogs, it is a sign of positive reinforcement. So if they are misbehaving (like barking, jumping and pawing) and they are being petted, you are reinforcing negative behaviour which is not suited for the owners that depend on them in the future”.
It is important that people see the trainer first before they see the dog. “The dogs are being trained to be an extension of their owner in the future. Their owners depend on them for their day-to-day tasks so it is important that people ask the owner before they approach and pet the dogs” said Jones & Forster.
Another frustrating issue reoccurring on campus are students whom are literally stalking the puppies on social media on Overheard at Guelph. “I was really worried about my friend who is also a fellow puppy raiser. A group of students that have been essentially broadcasting her location over the internet to thousands of students and they’d post updates to the thread whenever she moved” said Pelkmans, “this scary incident really shows how important it is to educate Guelph students about what service dogs in training is about”.
Students across campus have also been abusing certain privileges pertaining to guide dogs and purchasing fake vests to put on their own dogs so they could bring them around campus. “This is a really serious issue,” said Jones, “not only have their dogs not been screened for aggression, we also don’t know if their dogs have the same vaccinations that guide dogs in training are required to have”. As a result of this abuse, dogs are not permitted to be off the leash while they are on campus primarily due to risks of accidental attacks. This is really frustrating since guide dogs that are not on the leash are technically always in training. “As cute as the very little puppies are, they cry very often and need to be taken outside for a bathroom break every 20-30 minutes” said Pelkmans, “we get a break when we work six to eight hours, these puppies need a break in between too”. There were interests expressed by students and volunteers for the University to help establish a ‘puppy park’ to allow the dogs a break and also a chance for students to bring their dogs on campus to hang out.
Nonetheless, raising a puppy is adorable and fun. Volunteer trainers at the event shared that their experiences had been incredibly rewarding but can also be very emotional at times, especially when it comes to parting with the puppy. “It was hysterical. I bawled my eyes out for three days straight when I had to let my first dog go!” said Melissa Duff, who became a volunteer trainer with the Lion’s Foundation after graduating from the University of Guelph, “I couldn’t let it go…I hugged my dog and kissed them every day until their graduation. But in the end, I knew what I had gotten myself into and that the dog had a bigger purpose to fulfil in the community”. Duff has since been a volunteer service dog trainer for seven years, and she is currently raising two more dogs; Sienna, who is nine and a half months old, and Myrtle, who is nine weeks old.
“From an Autism Dog Services puppy raiser’s perspective It really all becomes worth it when you meet the children and families on the wait list who need these dogs” said Pelkmans, “it’s rewarding to know that in the future, Houston will be there to provide safety, companionship, and independence to a child with autism as well as piece of mind to their family”.