If you spent any time on the campus of UW-River Falls this past semester, you might have noticed a few new faces. No, they weren’t just the new fresh-faced Falcon freshmen. Thanks to a unique collaboration between the university and an area nonprofit, these new faces happened to be of the furry, four-legged variety.
UW-River Falls initiated a service dog training program in 2016, the first of its kind within the UW System. Housed within the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences, the training program ran under the direction of Beth Rausch and was only open to students in the companion animal emphasis. Rausch, an assistant professor of animal science, dreamed of expanding the program.
Rausch found the answer to her expansion dream in a Minnesota-based nonprofit called Pawsitive Perspectives Assistance Dogs. She connected with Linda Ball, founder and executive director of PawPADS, and the collaboration spurred UW-River Falls Assistance Dog Education Program and Training.
ADEPT is in its first full year on campus and is offered as a for-credit internship. Multiple dogs now call campus their training ground as students make a two-semester commitment to the program, with some students living full time with the animals in what is affectionately known as “the dog house.”
Kelly Vodra, a fifth-year senior from Stevens Point, is enrolled in the ADEPT program and played a role in the program’s expansion beyond companion animal emphasis. She is a psychology and biology double major who hopes to work in a behavior-related field.
“Having a dog around people who need help just opens them up a little bit more,” she said. “A dog isn’t going to judge you. They’re always open to the things you have to say and it just kind of frees up that barrier that might be there with people.
“I actually saw that there was a service dog program on campus last year and I thought that would be a good fit with my psychology background and may be something I wanted to do in the future. I contacted Beth and asked about openings. She originally told me no because I’m not an animal science major. I was like, ‘OK, that’s fine, but I still want to do it,’ ” she said, laughing.
Vodra wasn’t discouraged and sought other options.
“I researched different service dog training centers in the area and I found one in the Cities. I contacted them to see what I could do and they told me I could be a puppy raiser. I then contacted the university because I knew I couldn’t just bring in a dog from a different program,” she said. “I contacted the chancellor (Dean Van Galen) and I wrote him this big long letter and it got connected to Beth.”
Now, Vodra is one of several UW-River Falls students who work with dogs through the ADEPT program. She spends a large chunk of her time with her dog, Ganther.
Due to the size of the program, and in an effort to cohesively work with students’ lives and certain campus restrictions, the responsibility for each of the dogs is often split between two or three students.
“My partner Diane (and I), we split the dog. Fortunately, we both can have dogs at our houses,” Vodra said. “I’m a biology major and I have labs. When we have those big chunks of labs, I can’t have the dog with me, so she’ll take him. We call it joint parenting. It requires a lot of flexibility in our schedules.”
Training service dogs is a huge responsibility, but Vodra said adaptation is key and she plans her day in an effort to create the best situation for both herself and Ganther.
“As far as training, I’ve found that he is really active in the morning, so I’ll start with a walk to wear him out and then we’ll do our training,” she said. “Then I’ll do some homework. If he’s still super excited, we’ll do more training. If I do that in the morning, he’ll sleep during my classes.”
While Vodra has adapted to Ganther’s personality, her fellow students and the campus community have had to adapt to the presence of the service dogs in training.
“It’s hard because everyone wants to pet him,” she said. “It’s been really positive. We were prepared for negative reactions, people telling us we couldn’t be in here, please leave, that sort of thing. I was prepared to react to that, but I’ve had nothing but positivity.”
Vodra elected to extend her time at UW-River Falls in order to partake in ADEPT. She sees the value that it offers for students in and outside of the program.
“One of the main reasons that I took this fifth year was so that I could do this. I think it opens the door with my psychology major. It opens the door for connections,” she said. “But it’s not just valuable for me. Training students to see a service dog and have that be a norm is so valuable. The dog sees them, too, and it can be hard for the trainer. Adapting to that, knowing you see the dog but can’t pet it, that’s something that I, as a trainer, see and recognize. It’s helpful for those students who might be afraid of dogs or reluctant to be around them. To see the dogs in a positive light is so helpful.”
While Vodra opted to add a fifth year at UW-River Falls to participate, for junior Teagen Steffen, the program is one of the things that initially drew her to campus. A transfer student from Ramsey, Minn., Steffen is also a member of the Army National Guard and knew when she left for basic training after her senior year of high school that she was interested in eventually pursuing an animal science degree.
“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with it. While I was in training, I began thinking of service dog work and veterans that suffer from PTSD and how service dogs impact how they cope with their lives,” she said. “I thought it would be really cool to find a program where I could pursue something service dog related. That became my focal point when looking for schools. I toured here after I came home from training in December and fell in love with the school right away. ... We attended the seminars while on the tour and I went to an animal science one. The dean told us they had just started the program. I looked at my mom and thought, ‘I’m done, this is it.’ ”
After being accepted into the program, Steffen dove right in to ADEPT.
“It’s been an amazing experience and I’ve learned a lot already, especially patience,” she said. “There have definitely been challenges and definitely a lot of positive feedback from professors and other students. You get used to people looking at you and smiling and pulling out their cameras.”
Steffen works with Finley, a dog she describes as a “talker.” She’s part of a team of three students who work with Finley. As a resident assistant, she lives in a residence hall on campus and can’t keep him overnight. Her duties with the National Guard also present unique scheduling challenges, but the convenience and accessibility of “the dog house” help make her participation possible. One member of her team lives at the designated dog house and keeps Finley overnight.
“Flexible, versatile, adaptable. That’s the motto of the whole program. We just try to be that as best as possible,” Steffen said.
Steffen is keenly aware, though, that the benefits of the program span far beyond learning to be flexible.
“I almost don’t know how to put it into words. You definitely learn a lot of core values. You learn a lot about patience and empathy and compassion and understanding. You learn a lot about the challenges people with disabilities go through every day and how a dog can make it better and make it easier to live a more independent lifestyle,” she said. “I think it’s just amazing that a dog can be catered to an individual person. The fact that I’m getting to experience this as an undergrad is incredible.”
Rausch and Ball also emphasize the unique skills that students in ADEPT are gaining in a setting unlike any other.
“Having to talk to people, having to navigate that. It’s a great way to develop communication and leadership skills, the ability to think outside of the box and think about others since the dogs are being trained for others,” Ball said. “Students have to troubleshoot.”
The hands-on learning component of the program is one of the most valuable learning experiences students can have, according to Rausch.
“Theory is really important, but unless you get a chance to apply what you learn in class, you don’t truly understand it. The university and the department values hands-on learning. Look around campus. Montessori, HHP, the rodeo, the dairy farm. It’s critical for a successful companion animal program to have hands-on learning experiences,” she said. “I’ve been really impressed with how quickly campus acclimated to seeing dogs in vests working. The student body and campus community is friendly from a baseline standpoint, so this is a very receptive campus to bring this initiative to.”
“I have not found another university program like this,” Rausch said. “Other universities have service dog programs, puppy raisers. ADEPT isn’t just about training the dog but to train people to acknowledge the education process. It’s what really sets us apart on a nationwide level. It speaks to the opportunities for our students. With PawPADs and Linda on board, we were able to expand to include students who are interested in the program but not companion animal students. We can reach psychology, social work, pre-vet, sociology, so many areas.”
As part of the innovative partnership, PawPADS provides the service dogs in-training for the ADEPT program. According to PawPADS, these dogs generally come to the organization as puppies from a variety of places, including rescue shelters and breed-specific rescue organizations. Dogs are trained through the program with the intention of being placed as assistance dogs for persons with physical disabilities, as diabetic alert dogs and autism support dogs.
According to the organization, “PawPADs provides the specific foundational training skills and socialization training to the student participants. The students are responsible for the training and socialization of the assistance dogs in-training participating in the ADEPT program. This includes a high level of socialization, obedience skills and task training such as retrieves, turning on lights, alerting to blood sugar changes and tugging open doors. Every student is responsible for the daily care, supervision, training and sanitation of dogs involved in the program.”
“Their level of dedication is impressive. It’s just fun. Fun to watch them grow. Fun to be able to deliver the promises we make as an institution. That was critically important to me. I’m committed to this,” Rausch aid. “We make this promise as a university and we follow through. There are hiccups, but it’s successful.”
For more information about ADEPT, visit http://www.uwrf.edu/ANFS/ADEPT.cfm.