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Wildcat Service Dogs

Some University of Kentucky students are taking on the role of teachers, and puppies are their pupils in the Wildcat Service Dog program.

Wildcat Service Dogs are learning to assist those who have diabetes, autism, mobility impairments, or psychiatric problems. Golden retrievers and Labradors are the most common breeds trained by the UK program. Students live full-time with the puppies until the dogs are 8 to 10 months old.

After that, the dogs go on to an Ohio group called Assistance Dogs for Achieving Independence, where they finish their training.

UK students begin by teaching basic commands. More importantly, the dogs become acclimated to working with humans.

“What they really want to see is the solid background of personality and behavior,” said Jordan Canady, a training supervisor. “They can be calm; they know how to work. They’re not going to be fearful; they’re not going to be aggressive.”

There is an extensive evaluation process for would-be trainers, who must be sensitive to the needs of their puppies. “Service dogs, there’s a lot that goes into them,” said Anna Brown, president of Wildcat Service Dogs. “Any little thing can affect them, especially when they’re puppies. You know, they’re very impressionable.”

The dogs also learn to walk on a leash and accompany their trainers everywhere.

In Kentucky, service dogs in training have the same rights as service dogs do, meaning they can be taken to restaurants and stores—anywhere their handlers can go, said Brown. The dogs are slowly acclimated to all kinds of environments, and learn to wait quietly under a desk or table until they are needed.

“The biggest compliment you can ever get is for someone to say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know there was a dog there,” said trainer Annie Griggs.

The dogs learn commands specific to their future work, such as how to touch the wall buttons that open doors for those with mobility impairments.

“’Up’ and ‘touch’ are the commands that we use for ‘hand-tap’ buttons,” explained trainer Juliana Ricci. “And those are very important, especially if they become mobility assistants or wheelchair assistants.”

The UK students can also teach the dogs more advanced commands, like how to pull off socks and unzip jackets. “You don’t realize how quickly they catch on to those things though,” said trainer Kelsey Vormbrock. “… We start with a treat lure, then we go into hand signals, and then we would switch to just a verbal command. We can go from a treat lure to a verbal command within an hour.”

Saying goodbye as the dogs move on to Ohio for advanced training is bittersweet for the trainers. “You get attached to these dogs no matter what,” said Isabell Park, training supervisor.

However, the trainers take satisfaction in knowing their dogs are helping others who really need them. “She’s going to be able to change someone’s life someday,” said trainer Krista Wilkerson.

This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2107, which originally aired on February 13, 2016. Watch the full episode.