UC is the Training Ground for the Next Generation of Service Dogs

Written by Chris Pasion, graduate assistant to The Graduate School.

What is your first instinct when you pass a fluffy golden retriever trotting along Main Street? When it looks you in the eyes, does your heart grow three sizes? Don’t you just want to reach out and pet it? Here’s why you probably shouldn’t. 

4 Paws trainer Jake at Nippert Stadium with his trainee, Buzz.

4 Paws trainer Jake Miller at Nippert Stadium with Buzz.

While the urge to run up and shower the pup in love and affection is innocent enough, it is not the correct way to approach an animal on campus; many dogs found on UC's campus are likely service animals. If they are wearing a red vest, then the animal is working. UC students are playing a vital role in training service dogs via the nonprofit organization 4 Paws for Ability. 

4 Paws for Ability was founded in 1998 with the goal of bringing service animals to children who struggle with accessibility issues. The organization offers support for children with seizures, diabetes, hearing issues, mobility issues, and more. In addition to children, 4 Paws also serves veterans and people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

4 Paws service dog Kings on graduation day.

4 Paws service dog Kings on graduation day.

Handlers put the service dogs through rigorous training in order to get them ready for their future family. After the 4 Paws dogs pass their evaluations, which take place around one year after birth, they leave college campuses and go to advanced training where they are matched with their permanent owner and begin training to for their specific needs. 4 Paws trainer Rokas Ogorodnikas explains, “This makes 4 Paws very unique because its not just specified types of service dogs they train, they have dogs that are trained for a very wide variety of needs that are specific to an individual and their specific needs”. 

4 Paws Trainer Rokas Ogorodnikas and his 4 Paws dog Nikita, a yellow lab.

Rokas and his 4 Paws trainee Nikita.

College students are invaluable to keeping the 4 Paws ball rolling; many trainers who volunteer for 4 Paws are in college. Rokas states, “College campuses are really good training grounds as they expose the dogs to many different environments and people and situations. It makes them comfortable with anything that could happen.” Rokas differentiates college trainers from full-time 4 Paws trainers by saying, “trainers at 4 Paws can teach a dog how to sit, how to heel, how to do all the commands, how to listen. But they can’t train suspicion out of a dog, which is what our main goal is on campus”. 

So how should you approach a 4 Paws dog on campus?  

Rokas answers, “At 4 Paws, because we’re trying to get the dogs acclimated to many different things, we encourage people petting, but we still want to instill the whole ‘ask before you pet’ thing, because that’s really important for when they actually become service dogs.” 4 Paws trainer Mary Billington adds, “the dog is an accessibility device. You wouldn’t just walk up to someone’s wheelchair and just touch it without asking. You have to remember that it is not someone’s pet, it is working as a functioning accessibility tool”.    

If you obtain permission to pet the animal from its handler, then it is best to let the dog smell you before you pet it. Rokas concludes, “Once they smell you, they just want to know who you are.”  

4 Paws 1

Becoming a 4 Paws dog trainer is a great way to experience living and working with a dog without actually committing to permanent, full-time ownership, which is why it is such a handsome proposition for many college students. There are a few different options for helping raise and train a service dog for 4 Paws, from day-time trainers who take service dogs along with them on their day-to-day routine to night-sitters who house the animals during the evenings. There is also the option to be more of a full-time foster, which is about a year-long commitment.

4 Paws for Ability was recently featured in the first episode of Netflix docuseries - doguseries? - DOGS. In addition, each current 4 Paws dog in training at UC has its own Instagram account, so be sure to follow along to stay up to date with all your favorite service animals.

To become a 4 Paws trainer, visit their website and apply!