By Megan Berg
Seeing a dog on campus is common at Findlay, but the dogs with vests are working and learning alongside everyone else. UF 4 Paws for Ability is applying University of Findlay’s mission statement to canine learners—puppy raisers across campus are preparing Service Dogs in Training (SDiTs) for meaningful lives and productive careers.
4 Paws for Ability describes itself on its website as “a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organization whose mission is to place quality service dogs with children with disabilities and veterans who have lost use of limbs or hearing, and educate the public regarding service dogs in public places.”
Club Founder at UF, President, and Primary Volunteer Trainer Rachael Quandt says the role of the club is specific.
“We’re what’s called the University Program,” Quandt said. “Our job is to do the basic socialization and behavioral training at the young puppy stages. It’s a really important time frame that you’re working with.”
She says the puppy’s and the trainer’s lives become integrated.
“College students who work with the dogs, the dogs live with them, they socialize, they go to classes, they go to club events, they go anywhere,” Quandt said. “They can go to restaurants, grocery shopping, things like that.”
These dogs become a central part of the life of the student raising them. But before they can have them in public, the volunteers get trained how to train the dogs. The Columbus Dispatch reports in a 2019 article titled “Law guides public use of service dogs” that in Ohio, a service dog in training is allowed to be in public only if the dog is with a trainer who works for a nonprofit organization that trains service dog.
By being a part of 4 Paws, the primary volunteer trainers gain the legal right to take the dogs in public. They use this privilege to desensitize their dogs to all sorts of stimuli.
Amelia Enfinger is another primary volunteer trainer at UF.
“Getting Macaron (the puppy she’s raising) comfortable in many environments is extremely important,” Enfinger said. “She has to be able to walk down the dog treat aisle or down a busy street with sirens blaring and not turn her attention from me, so exposure to many interesting sights, sounds, and smells and correcting her for becoming distracted is in my opinion the most important thing we work on.”
Quandt also stresses the need for socialization and desensitization.
“They need to know that going in public is a really fun, exciting thing to do,” Quandt said. “They don’t have to be scared of a grocery cart, because they’re most likely going to be working with someone who’s going to be going grocery shopping and everything like that. They need to know that they’re supposed to lay down and stay down throughout the entire classes because a lot of the dogs will be placed with children with disabilities who are going to school every day. So it’s a really important job to get these dogs familiar to a lot of various situations, sounds, smells, everything like that.”
The club has blossomed, grown in members, and brought more dogs to responsible handlers on campus. It started at the beginning of last year, with only Rachael and a dog named Bravo. UF 4 Paws now has four dogs on campus.
“We’ve grown a lot from the dog standpoint, and we’ve also grown a lot as a club in general,” Quandt said. “We have a lot more sitters, which, their title is ‘secondary volunteer trainers’ through 4 Paws. So we have a lot more people who are able to temporarily watch the dogs and do their socializations and behavioral trainings as well. That has been really exciting.”
Morgan Waker, primary volunteer trainer, says socialization for the new dogs at Findlay was severely impacted by the pandemic.
“COVID has definitely had a major toll on only Tova’s socialization and training but every dog’s in the program,” Waker said.
“(COVID-19 has made it) a lot harder, both club-wise and socializations, to find these positive experiences and get people involved when it’s not safe to be around large groups anymore,” Quandt said.
Though the circumstances are more complicated now, UF 4 Paws for Ability club is adapting.
“We’ve been getting really creative about different experiences, and trying to utilize social media, so if people can’t come to a socialization or something like that, we have pictures and videos and posts, so they can still be involved in the process without actually being there,” Quandt said.
“Zoom has been really helpful, we’ve had a lot of people join us on that as well.” she added.
Quandt has high hopes for the program once her time at Findlay is done. “I know that only great things are to come,” Quandt said. “I’m really excited to watch it grow, because this is sort of like my little brain child at Findlay. I’m so excited to see what’s going to be in the future for it.”