New program at UW-River Falls helps rescued dogs become service animals

Posted March 23, 2016

A new program at UW-River Falls offers hands-on experience for students in training rescued dogs to become service animals.

The UWRF Service Dog Training Program, part of the Department of Animal and Food Science, started in February. In the program, students majoring in animal science with a companion animal emphasis are able to get hands-on experience by training a rescued dog to have the qualities of a service dog.

The program serves as a bridge for dogs that are being overlooked in rescue or that are maybe facing euthanasia in an overcrowded shelter while providing them with a foundation for potential advanced training, according to Beth Rausch, assistant professor in the Department of Animal and Food Science and the faculty advisor of the UWRF Service Dog Training Program.

Service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks required when aiding a disabled person, according to a press release from the department. This includes tasks such as guiding a blind person, alerting a deaf person, or calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The university partnered with Coco’s Heart Dog Rescue, which is a nonprofit, foster-based organization in Hudson primarily run by volunteers. The organization rescues dogs from unfortunate situations, places them in foster homes, and gets them quality veterinary care with the goal of finding them lifelong matches with quality homes, according to Ashley Kurtz, executive director of rescue operations at Coco’s Heart Dog Rescue.

Coco’s Heart Dog Rescue has more than 200 rescued dogs, with a focus of helping dogs from overcrowded shelters, rural impounds and stray dogs on reservations. Having previously worked closely with Rausch, Kurtz said that the organization jumped at the chance to have its dogs be part of the program. In partnership with the program, Coco’s Heart Dog Service supplies the rescue dogs to be trained by the students.

“We thought it sounded like a great opportunity to help our rescue dogs get some additional exposure and some training,” Kurtz said. “And hopefully (this will) help them on their way to being a valued member of someone’s family, hopefully in the service way.”

Four student handlers work in the program, all seniors with a companion animal emphasis. The students are training the first dog to be put through the program, Mel-O-Deedee (“Mel”). Mel rotates between the four students, each having a chance to work both individually with the dog and each other to create an effective training program.

Found on a reservation, Mel arrived at Coco’s Heart Dog Rescue mange-ridden, malnourished and with no hair on her body. Kurtz said that since Mel was rescued she has made huge improvements medically and the program has helped her grow into a “well-rounded adult.”

Mel’s training is based on positive reinforcement. The student handlers don’t use shock or prong collars and work to make sure that Mel isn’t stressed, is having fun, and is willing to do the training required.

“That’s the whole underlying foundation, is that the animal wants to and looks forward to training,” Rausch said. “Without that, the learning won’t be effective and the welfare won’t be there.”

Bailey Post is one of the student handlers for the program. A senior, she hopes to get into meat and companion animal sales after graduation. She said that the unique hands-on experience of the program has allowed her to put into effect what she has learned in her four years of higher education.

“You have your lectures, you have your books, you can read those and learn, but you just don’t learn as much as you would with that hands-on experience,” Post said.

Although Mel is very smart, eager, and has greatly improved since the beginning of training, the biggest obstacle in training her has been not knowing the experiences she went through before she was rescued, Post said. Through training, Mel is currently getting over being on edge around other animals and her fear of traffic and men with facial hair.

“We’re finding out what she’s on edge about and we’re turning those negative memories into positive associations,” Post said.

Although the best-case scenario is for the dogs that go through the program to become service dogs, Rausch said that about 75 percent to 80 percent of dogs don’t make it into advanced training programs. She said that the program is more about saving dogs’ lives and giving students the opportunity to learn through hands-on experiences.

“So if (the dogs) don’t enter into that level, they haven’t failed the program,” Rausch said. “What they have done is have the opportunity to really evolve from a dog that was rescued into a dog that can really be a quality companion animal.”

The program is set up to train one dog per semester, but Rausch said that the transitioning between dogs will depend on how long it takes to train each individual dog. The training could take only a semester or a full year to complete. The schedule has to be fluid and flexible in order to work, so the program moves on only when the dog is ready.

For students involved in the program, the experience is a stepping stone for a career in animal science.

Said Post: “It’s been a really cool, really interesting, fun, little trip.”