Puppy University charter class destined for lives of service

Virginia Tech’s fall commencement was held on Friday, Dec. 16, but the celebrations came early for a few nontraditional graduates. The first cohort of Saint Francis Service Dogs puppies in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine’s Puppy University program graduated on Thursday, Dec. 8 in Blacksburg. Their journey to become service dogs will continue with 9 to twelve months of formal training with Saint Francis Service Dogs before placement with individuals in need.

Puppy University charter class
Puppy University charter class members (left to right) Esme, Koda, and Tucker graduated on Thursday, Dec. 8 during a special ceremony held at the veterinary college on the Virginia Tech campus.

About the program

The college's Center for Animal Human Relationships (CENTAUR) teamed up with Saint Francis Service Dogs, a Roanoke-based nonprofit that helps people with disabilities become more independent and self-sufficient through partnership with a service dog, in October 2015 to raise three puppies for service dog training. Over 13 months, the charter class of puppies — Koda, Esme, and Tucker — spent their weekdays at the veterinary college in a structured program of care where they learned foundational skills, such as walking on a leash, interacting with people and other animals in safe situations, and traveling on a bus.

The program not only supports puppies on their path to become professionally trained service dogs, but also offers veterinary students important lessons on the human-animal bond. Veterinary student participants in the puppy raiser program have the option to earn course credit during their fourth year by completing a presentation about their work. In addition, six undergraduate work-study students were engaged in the care and training of the puppies.

It takes a village to raise a puppy

The charter class of Puppy University received care and training from a large team comprised of faculty, veterinary students, undergraduate students, dog trainers, and Saint Francis Service Dogs staff. The puppies spent their weekdays on campus in a structured program under the care of undergraduate students, learned foundational skills, and were socialized in a variety of college and campus settings. In the evenings, they went home with their puppy raisers and received socialization and training in residential and community environments.

Puppy University students and teachers
Puppy University members pictured are (back row, left to right) Virginia Buechner-Maxwell, professor of large animal internal medicine and director of the Center for Animal Human Relationships; Robin Lasher, undergraduate work-study student; Teagan Pugh, undergraduate work-study student; Nick Corrigan, team Tucker puppy raiser; Sarah Rollins, undergraduate work-study student; Tess Pangle, undergraduate work-study student; Maggie Naccarato, undergraduate work-study student; Madison Steele, undergraduate work-study student; Rosie Higdon, dog trainer with Hi-D-Ho Dog Training; (front row, left to right) Virginia Corrigan, assistant professor of community practice and team Tucker puppy raiser; Tucker; Anna Jiang, third-year veterinary student and team Koda puppy raiser; Koda; Dara Ahrens, third-year veterinary student and team Esme puppy raiser; Esme.

Team Koda

Alex King
Fourth-year veterinary student from Chicago, Illinois
Puppy raiser, Team Koda

Alex King and Anna Jiang with Koda at the handover ceremony
Veterinary students Alex King (left) and Anna Jiang (right) were members of Koda’s puppy raiser team.

“Working for so many months with a dog that I knew we would have to give up was difficult, but I smile every time I see Koda around the school, knowing that there is a chance he will help a family in need. He fit into our own family so easily, fearlessly exploring the house and yard, greeting every visitor and every new person with the full force of his personality. There’s no question he has not made it easy. He is probably a little too smart for his own good, but I know he has the ability to make a great service animal. These animals are making such a huge difference in the world, and I feel incredibly grateful to have a chance to be an ongoing part of their mission.”

Anna Jiang
Third-year veterinary student from Ellicott City, Maryland
Puppy raiser, Team Koda

“I think the biggest impact being a puppy raiser has had on my educational experience at VT is it’s made me more interested in dog behavior and training. I’ve had many opportunities to explain to my friends and family why we do certain things with the puppies, such as teaching them settle versus down or encouraging them to hold various objects. Taking Koda to stores like Walmart and also just walking around the neighborhood has given me opportunities to interact with people that I would’ve never talked to otherwise, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how attentively many of them listen when I tell them about the process of training a service dog. Overall, I think Puppy U has been a great learning experience not only for those of us in the program but also for the general community, and I hope it will continue for many years to come.”

Team Esme

Dara Ahrens
Third-year veterinary student from Rock Hall, Maryland
Puppy raiser, Team Esme

Dara Ahrens and Jenny Tonkin with Esme at the handover ceremony
Veterinary students (left to right) Dara Ahrens and Jenny Tonkin were members of Esme’s puppy raiser team.

“I had never raised any type of puppy before, and this experience taught me not only training techniques, but also made me think more about the difficulties some people face in daily life and the impact a service dog can have. Through taking Esme into public places, and even just walking through the neighborhood, I had the opportunity to share the amazing things Saint Francis does for their dogs and partners, as well as the things I have learned over the last year. Esme always started conversations, and I could see how this may help a partner feel more included and welcomed into a community.” I will miss Esme, but I'm excited that she will help someone else accomplish things they never were able to before.

Jennifer Tonkin
Fourth-year veterinary student from Little Birch, West Virginia
Puppy raiser, Team Esme

“Having Esme while I was in veterinary school was both difficult and rewarding. … It was incredible to watch Esme grow and be a part of her journey. From potty training and discouraging vacuuming to having her speak on command, pick up the remote when it dropped, and taking her to numerous restaurants, she has come such a long way in such a short period of time. I am passionate about working dogs and their role in society, especially after working with Saint Francis and seeing the wonderful work they are doing in both educating the public and providing a great service to those in need. Through the Puppy U program, we are able to be a part of the journey and help those in need as well.”

Team Tucker

Virginia Corrigan
Assistant professor of community practice in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences
Puppy raiser, Team Tucker

Virginia Corrigan with Tucker at the handover ceremony
Virginia Corrigan, assistant professor of community practice, meets golden retriever Tucker, whom she and her husband Nick raised through the Puppy University program.

“During the past year, I have had dual responsibilities as a puppy raiser for Tucker and a faculty advisor for the program. I am thankful to have a deeper understanding of the process of raising a service dog. The rigorous process of training and evaluation means that those who are eventually placed with a partner are not only just good dogs; they are exceptional. Service dogs are vital to the health and well-being of their partners, and have a great impact not only on that individual, but in society. I will carry forth this understanding in my role as a companion animal veterinarian as well as in my role as an educator to the next generation of veterinarians in attending to the special needs of these dogs and their partners. Additionally, I think our program has the ongoing responsibility to educate our community about service dogs and their role in the human-animal bond...”

“Specifically regarding my experience with Tucker, it has been wonderful. He is a very special dog to me and my husband and fellow puppy-raiser, Nick. He has touched our hearts, as well as become very best friends with our older golden retriever, Yogi, who has been the perfect role-model. While letting him go is going to be a very difficult moment, we hope that he can continue to bring joy and comfort to others.”

Undergraduate work-study students

Undergraduate work-study students at Virginia Tech assisted with the care and training of the puppies during weekdays when veterinary student puppy raisers were in class. The students shared their thoughts on their experiences with the program and puppies this past year.

PuppyU undergraduate work-study students
Undergraduate work-study students at Virginia Tech assisted with the care and training of the Saint Francis Service Dogs puppies. Pictured are (back row, left to right) Teagan Pugh, Tess Pangle, Maggie Naccarato, (front row, left to right) Tucker, Robin Lasher, Koda, Sarah Rollins, Esme, and Madison Steele.

Robin Lasher
Sophomore, animal and poultry sciences
Hometown: Wake Forest, North Carolina

Robin Lasher

“I always helped with training my dogs back home and I thought generally I did pretty well. But after working with these dogs and the amount of training they go through to be service dogs, I know now that I was going about it all wrong. These dogs have opened my eyes to the capabilities that each and every dog holds. They have too much potential … and I am honored that I got to be part of this program. I have also learned a lot about the human-animal bond. It is a sacred bond that not everyone gets to experience. The thing is that these dogs love all people and I am sure that they will have a fantastic bond with their assigned person. While my heart is heavy thinking that I will not see them every Monday through Thursday morning, I am happy to know that they will be making someone else's life much happier.”
 

Maggie Naccarato
Junior, environmental science
Hometown: Rockville, Maryland

Maggie Naccarato

“I feel so blessed and grateful to be a part of Puppy University. While working with these dogs, I feel like they have taught me as much as I’ve taught them. I learned to be more patient, more consistent, and more independent as these three semesters have passed. I am also so proud of how much our dogs have accomplished, and I cannot wait to see what they do in the future. This program is so amazing because not only does it give an educational and financial opportunity for students, it also provides a service dog to those in need. I feel so honored to be a part of this life-changing process, and I am excited to see what the future holds for Puppy University!”

 

Tess Pangle
Senior double-major in animal and poultry sciences, and wildlife conservation
Hometown: Strasburg, Virginia

Tess Pangle

“It seems like just yesterday we were meeting the trio and now Esme, Koda, and Tucker are off to the next leg of their journey in becoming service dogs. I have learned so much about animal behavior and training while working with the puppies and that is something I hope to carry with me after I graduate this December. For me the biggest thing that I am taking away from this experience is a deeper sense of our university motto, Ut Prosim. I have gained a great amount of respect for the hard work and dedication that goes into training a service dog and how much these dogs can improve the lives of their partners. I will truly miss engaging with students on campus about Saint Francis and the role service dogs play in our communities. It is my hope that I can remain involved with service dog training in the future volunteering with Saint Francis or a similar organization.”

“Training these puppies has helped me understand the remarkable human-animal bond. For each command that we teach them, it is something that they are able to aid their partners with. “Bump” tells the puppies to push the handicap button to open doors or to open a door themselves. “Under” is for having the dogs lay under the table with the partners, which can be very helpful in a restaurant or a meeting. And with all the commands, especially later on in training when it became more specific, it was evident the direct connection with what we were teaching them and the possible situations they could be in with a partner. Lastly, I think this program really embodies the motto of the university “Ut Prosim” (That I May Serve). The puppies are a great example on how to serve the community. They may not know it but, they are not just serving their partners, but around campus, they are great spokepups for service dogs in general.”
 

Teagan Pugh
Sophomore, chemical engineering
Hometown: Germantown, Maryland

Teagan Pugh

“I look forward to working every day because Puppy University’s inaugural class is always excited to learn and train (and who doesn’t like how excited the puppies get when they see you!) While working with these puppies, I have learned about everything from basic health of puppies and some health issues they might run into, to how to socialize puppies from a young age in addition to their rigorous training. I learned about the lengthy process of training a service puppy before they go onto the trainers and the value that these service dogs provide when paired with partners.”

“Training these puppies has helped me understand the remarkable human-animal bond. For each command that we teach them, it is something that they are able to aid their partners with. “Bump” tells the puppies to push the handicap button to open doors or to open a door themselves. “Under” is for having the dogs lay under the table with the partners, which can be very helpful in a restaurant or a meeting. And with all the commands, especially later on in training when it became more specific, it was evident the direct connection with what we were teaching them and the possible situations they could be in with a partner. Lastly, I think this program really embodies the motto of the university “Ut Prosim” (That I May Serve). The puppies are a great example of how to serve the community. They may not know it but they are not just serving their partners, around campus they are great spokepups for service dogs in general.”
 

Sarah Rollins
Sophomore, animal and poultry sciences, pre-vet option
Hometown: Manassas, Virginia

Sarah Rollins

“As soon as those kennel doors opened that weekend in October, we had all fallen in love with our three little bundles of fluff – Tucker, Koda, and Esme – and I knew that I was going to be a part of something very special at Virginia Tech. Here at Puppy University, we were given the privilege to care for and socialize our first three students – watching and helping them grow into the wonderfully gifted dogs they are today. Starting off slow, we helped to train the puppies with simple things such as slow eating, allowing themselves to be groomed, and their names. Going through these motions we could already tell each puppy's individual personality – Koda, our slow stubborn pup, Tucker, the biggest baby and cuddle bug, and Esme, our smart and sassy female. As their training progressed, these personalities strengthened and became even more apparent as we began to socialize them.”

“This program has provided me the opportunity to train and love on some of the most important types of dogs in society. These dogs are going to continue their training and become someone’s best friend for life – a certain love that only a human-animal bond can produce. Learning how important this human-animal bond can be has given me a new perspective on service animals and those they are designated to help. It is a bond that is not one based on control, but instead of teamwork, companionship, and loyalty. It warms my heart knowing that I made a difference in these puppies lives and was able to make a difference in someone else’s life by helping to provide a dog that will support them in every way they can.”
 

Madison Steele
Junior, residential environments and design
Hometown: Spotsylvania, Virginia

Madison Steele

“I have felt so lucky working with Puppy University since I started with the program last January. This experience has made me realize the great opportunity to give back with these puppies. Through training Esme, Koda, and Tucker and consequently learning more about Saint Francis, I have come to believe that these dogs are capable of so much more than I would have ever initially thought possible. Though I do not know who each dog will be paired with, I feel great pride in knowing these dogs will be able to apply the skills we have taught them to help whoever they are paired with in ways that nothing else could. I truly believe that this program is beneficial for everyone who has been involved and will be in the future.”