Virginia Tech veterinary college teams up with Saint Francis Service Dogs for new puppy raiser program
The newly established puppy raiser program, involving a partnership between the veterinary college and Saint Francis Service Dogs, 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.
“While they are with us, the puppies have a structured program of care and learning foundational skills such as walking on a leash and interacting with people and other animals in safe situations,” said Bess Pierce, associate professor in the Department of Population Health Sciences and director of the Center for Animal Human Relationships. “During the day at the veterinary college, they follow a detailed program developed by Saint Francis, and in the evenings, they will go home with their puppy raisers.”
The charter class of puppies — named Koda, Esme, and Tucker — spend their weekdays at the veterinary school where they learn life skills through a program called Puppy University. The college’s Small Animal Community Practice at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital is also providing their veterinary care.
“At certain weeks, they will learn certain physical and social skills that they might need in their future life as a service dog, such as going to the library, traveling on a bus, or visiting the mall,” said Pierce, who previously served on the board of directors for Saint Francis Service Dogs. “These are all milestones that they will be achieving throughout the year.”
The veterinary college has six undergraduate work study students who are taking care of the puppies during the day. “From 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., they are at the veterinary school for day care called Puppy University,” said Tess Pangle of Strasburg, Virginia, a senior double-majoring in animal and poultry sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and wildlife conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment. “We work with the puppies and train them throughout the day while their puppy raisers are taking classes or in clinics.”
An educational mission
The three puppies each have a primary puppy raiser affiliated with the veterinary college and responsible for their care.
“We are raising them until they are about 14 months of age,” explained Virginia Corrigan, a community practice resident who will be raising Tucker, the male golden retriever, with her husband Nick. “Then, Saint Francis takes them back and they do their full formal training, as well as more specific training for what they will actually be doing in their service dog work for a particular person.”
The program also aligns well with Corrigan’s academic interests.
“Part of my master’s program in public health is a focus on human-animal bond studies, including learning about animal-assisted activities and animal-assisted therapy,” she said. “I have learned a great deal about therapy dogs because my dog, Yogi, is a part of Virginia Tech Helping PAWS, but frankly I didn’t know as much about service dogs until we started this program.”
Other puppy raisers include Alex King of Chicago, Illinois, a third-year veterinary student, and Anna Jiang of Ellicott City, Maryland, a second-year veterinary student, who are raising a male yellow Labrador retriever named Koda. Jennifer Tonkin of Little Birch, West Virginia, a third-year veterinary student, and Dara Ahrens of Rock Hall, Maryland, a second-year veterinary student, are responsible for the black Labrador retriever named Esme.
“It’s great to have the experience of raising a puppy, training him well from the start, and seeing how he progresses,” King said. “I’m hoping my senior year that I can do a rotation with Saint Francis Service Dogs to see the advanced training when these puppies are a little older and ready to place with their new owners.”
Student participants in the puppy raiser program will also have the option of earning course credit during their fourth-year public and corporate veterinary medicine rotation if they complete a presentation about their work.
“The program provides students the opportunity not only to learn in a very experiential way about the raising, health care, and wellness of puppies, but it also allows them to contribute to and recognize the strength of the human-animal bond,” said Cyril Clarke, dean of the veterinary college, at the Oct. 30 handover ceremony where the college welcomed the charter class of puppies. “They are also contributing to the core themes of our programs, which revolve around public service.”
Purina, a pet nutrition company, is donating food and supplies for the puppies throughout the program. The college also received donations from W&S Painting, Sherwin Williams, SignSpot, Dominion Door and Hardware, and The Mason Company for supplies and services.
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