Students make University of Kentucky a laboratory for training service dogs

lblackford@herald-leader.comDecember 31, 2012 

Chevy is nine weeks and 10 pounds of honey-colored fuzz who prompts sighs and coos just by walking up the stairs at the University of Kentucky's Funkhauser Hall.

Students approach tentatively, hands held out, but Chevy is off limits to much cuddling. He is a Wildcat Service Dog, learning to be more than a pet, even at this young age.

"You can pet him as long as he's sitting or lying down," said Katie Skarvan, a UK junior, who is Chevy's temporary owner and trainer.

Chevy, a Golden Retriever, doesn't look overwhelmed by the attention, nor does he wriggle or try to lick anyone's face. Even at this young age, he's a serious pup, and he's bred to be that way, Skarvan said.

He's owned by Paws with a Purpose, a Louisville service dog organization, and was given to Wildcat Service Dogs for up to a year for training. Skarvan, who's from Louisville, started volunteering with Paws with a Purpose in seventh grade.

She started college at Texas A&M, where she worked with the Aggie Service Dog group. When she transferred to UK as a sophomore, she wanted to start a similar group there.

"I wanted to be more involved with training them," Skarvan said.

She approached the UK administration about allowing the dogs-in-training and they agreed. Wildcat Service Dogs now has six trainers, and another 20 students who help out with puppy-sitting. The Wildcat dogs usually stay with their student trainers for 12-18 months.

Service dogs have caught on at UK. Another organization, the Xenia, Ohio-based 4 Paws for Ability, helped UK students start a program on campus, said Caitlin Little, the senior who leads the group.

4 Paws for Ability focuses mainly on finding service dogs for children, so they have to be intensively socialized, said Little. Last spring, 22 young dogs were on campus. The students usually keep the dogs for one semester.

"We have the dogs to socialize them," Little said. "Everywhere we go the dogs go — they learn how to act in public."

Service dogs are not guide dogs, which guide the blind. Service dogs help the sick or disabled with a multitude of problems, such as physical disabilities, illnesses or disorders such as autism in children.

Both groups work mostly with retrievers, or Labradors, although Little said her group also works with much smaller Papillons. Those dogs go to students who live in the UK dorms, where they fit better.

Both groups also have monthly training sessions, where they work on specialized commands for the dogs. When the dogs graduate — and not all of them do — the parent organizations will find owners for them. The trained dogs are valuable. One dog that Skarvan trained was sold for $20,000.

Skarvan said the Wildcat Service Dogs work a lot on learning to guide their owners' hands to automatic door openers, or learning to open them themselves. They teach them to automatically sit under furniture, where they will be out of the way.

After they graduate, usually at age two, they are expected to be in service from five to seven years.

"The hardest thing is finding a quality breeder," Skarvan said.

Chevy was bred by Jamie Young, a veterinarian, who has worked on breeding calm, stalwart dogs.

The group gets money from the Student Government Association, and student members pay dues. They get help with vets' bills from Chevy Chase Animal Clinic.

Agriculture professor Roger Brown is the sponsor of Wildcat Service Dogs and says the group helps students learn more responsibility while educating those on campus about service dogs.

"This is not just about the mundane process of training a service animal that will later benefit someone who has a disability," Brown said. "The major portion is to educate people about the importance of service animals and how they get trained, that's the area that has the most positive effect on students."

The hard part, Skarvan says, is giving the dogs up after spending more than a year with them. Her first Paws with a Purpose dog, Graham, went to a woman with mobility assistance. She's already gotten attached to Chevy.

Kyle Campbell, one of the students who wanted to pat Chevy in Funkhauser Hall, is a member of 4 Paws for Ability. He had just given up the Golden Retriever puppy he socialized all semester.

"I cried so much when I gave her up," he said. "But I'm doing it again next semester."

Linda B. Blackford: (859) 231-1359Twitter: @lbblackford

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