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Canine companions

Student organization trains guide and service dogs

Published: Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Updated: Tuesday, February 4, 2014 22:02


John Benson

Shannon Barbeau, sophomore agricultural science major, gives Captain, her service-dog-in-training, a treat.

For 17 years, Aggie Guide-Dogs and Service-Dogs has trained puppies for a mission.

These eight “rock-star puppies” can be seen around campus in blue vests — practicing opening doors, flipping on light switches or just sitting quietly next to their trainers in the library.

These dogs, which are allowed into any building under the Americans with Disabilities Act, are trained to assist people with disabilities and disorders such as visual impairment, autism or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Laura Stough, AGS secondary staff advisor, said she has been a part of AGS since its founding in 1997 when she met a student named Jesse Czelusta who had a vision for starting a student-run organization for raising puppies to become service dogs.

“At that time the only dog on campus was, of course, Reveille, and Jesse was living in a residence hall and so he had to get permission to bring up a service dog on campus,” Stough said.

Stough said she crossed paths with Czelusta, coincidentally, at the same time that she was also raising a service puppy. Upon seeing their respective puppies-in-training, they began to talk.

Stough said when people saw Czelusta on campus with his puppy he would be asked many questions. Soon other students wanted to know how they could be a part of service-dog training as well.

“After that, students in the pre-vet program became very interested in raising puppies,” Stough said. “The organization went on to really formalize the training and to form a student-led group to support the people who were raising puppies, and then started raising puppies as part of AGS.”

Stough said AGS works to prepare dogs for working with people with mobility impairments and occasionally the AGS dogs go to children with such issues as balance problems or cognitive impairments.

The dogs are taught how to do tasks on command such as opening the fridge, handing a credit card from their partner to a cashier and even to urinate on command when outside. Stough said it’s been incredible to watch the program grow and change into what it is now.

“It’s a student organization, so students themselves change so much,” Stough said. “AGS is also getting an increased rate of puppies passing onto phase II training. The other change I have seen is that AGS just gets stronger and stronger. What the students do gets stronger as they mix old techniques with new ones for training, or for holding fundraisers or with networking for vet and food support.”

Stough said puppies are donated from breeders who do temperament testing at as early as eight weeks old to see if the dogs would be good matches.

Alice Blue, AGS head staff advisor and veterinary medicine clinical assistant professor, has been a part of AGS for more than 10 years. Blue said she usually gives the puppies a checkup and then educates the trainers on the commitment that are about to make after the puppies are donated and temperament tested.

Stough said large dogs are generally used because they are better at helping people who are mobility impaired and, ideally the dogs are hypoallergenic and easy-to-groom.

Stough said AGS is just the first part of training, taking care of the basic 25 commands service dogs need to know. The puppies learn basic obedience and socialization skills as well as advanced commands.

The puppies are still treated like puppies and get to have play-time every Monday on campus and celebrate their birthdays with parties thrown by their trainers.

After they graduate from puppy training, the dogs learn more specialized skills and are prepped for life with their future partners.

As a dog trainer, Katie Thompson, AGS director of programs and sophomore biomedical sciences major, said the program is very rewarding.

“As a pre-vet student, I fell in love with the idea of how dogs can help people to become independent,” Thompson said.

Thompson has been raising a Labradoodle puppy, Maverick, for eight months, who will go on to be a mobility assistance service dog.

Thompson said the dogs usually take 10-18 months before they graduate to the second phase and said Maverick will move on in April.

“It is exciting — the fact that they get to go help someone else and do what they are supposed to do,” Thompson said. “It’s bittersweet because I know that I’ll miss him, but he’s going to go do some great things and it’s better than what he could ever do with me.”

Samantha Darling, AGS member and senior psychology major, is also training a puppy — a 10-month-old Goldendoodle who is training for mobility assistance and diabetic alert.

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