CHESTERTOWN — Washington College has gone to the (service) dogs.
Fetching Freedom, a newly formed special interest group (meaning it has yet to reach club status) aims to give students the opportunity to “house, nurture and train” puppies in order for them to eventually become service dogs.
The work already has begun, Autumn, a black Labrador retriever, is the club’s first service dog-in-training. She is arrived on campus May 2 to begin her training.
“Washington College is following in the footsteps of many other schools who have service dog programs on their campuses,” said Tya Pope, assistant dean for curricular enrichment and Fetching Freedom’s faculty advisor. “This club is doing an incredible service to the community and the students involved should be incredibly proud of themselves.”
“I’ve always been fascinated by the way that animals positively affect people, even just by their presence,” said Shannon Finnegan, a rising senior at the college and the founder of the group. “Studies have shown us for years that being in the same room as a dog can increase your brain’s production of serotonin (the ‘happy’ chemical) and I felt that our campus could really use some steady positivity and morale boost.”
Finnegan said she noticed that there is a large population in Chestertown for whom service dogs could be beneficial. Bringing the organization onto campus, she said, would help demonstrate the dogs’ usefulness to the wider community.
“These dogs are such an incredible and vital resource to the community and the people they support. Some of these individuals would literally not be able to leave their homes without their canine supporter,” said Pope, who participated in another service dog training program, Canine Parters for Life.
Training service dogs also will help the student population. Finnegan said she wanted a way for students to learn how to train an animal and how to effectively educate others about the program and its mission.
“By giving students the responsibility of raising a puppy, they must learn incredible patience and determination in order to succeed in training,” Finnegan said.
Pope agreed that the benefits of dogs on campus in any capacity would help students.
“College students are also simply perfect puppy homes. Just about everyone loves puppies so the puppies get the love and support they need. I dare say the student also gets the perk of being loved by the puppy,” she said.
Pope said a college campus is the ideal environment for training service dogs.
“They learn so much about how to interact with people and how to appropriately behave in different settings. In addition to going into classes, the puppies are also going to the dining hall and dorms,” she said. “They are constantly seeing and experiencing new things. This helps the dog get comfortable in virtually any setting and helps alleviate some of the anxiety dogs may have when posed with a new task or place to get comfortable with.”
Training service dogs on campus also will serve to educate the students, faculty and staff about the purposes and responsibilities of service animals, another of Finnegan’s goals in forming the organization.
“Everyone will walk away from these experiences better understanding service animals and their role in helping others. So many people think service animals and emotional support animals are the same thing. While they both provide life-changing services, there are huge differences between the two. Service animals are required to go through extensive training and have public access rights. This is something not afforded to emotional support animals because they are not required to be trained,” Pope said.
Membership in the club consists of different “roles.” Not every member will be able to have their own puppy to train, so students will work in groups. Each dog will have a primary and a secondary trainer as well as a support steward. The dogs live with their primary trainers, but the secondary trainers are next in line whenever the primary trainer is unavailable.
The support stewards, Finnegan said, will comprise the majority of the club and will step in for the other trainers when they need a break.
The application process to become a trainer will be intensive. There will be both a written and interview portion of the application, and the selection process will be rigorous to ensure the safety of both the dogs and students.
All of the trainers will be required to live on campus, as the housing standards are uniform.
“Wwe can ensure that facilities will be cleaned by the college’s cleaning service and that maintenance issues will be managed in a timely fashion. I feel that we would run into too many issues with landlords if we were to allow trainers living with dogs off campus,” Finnegan said.
As a student, Finnegan said it can be challenging raising a puppy on a college campus.
“You are noticed by EVERYONE. Even if you want to just run to the store to grab a coffee, the dog comes, and everyone wants to say hello. I feel like I always have to be presentable,” she wrote in an email. “I have to say though, it’s not difficult in terms of daily activities. Of course, you spend a bit more time taking the dog out but you don’t have to change your schedule at all. The puppy comes along.”
Fetching Freedom is a subsidiary of Fidos for Freedom, a nonprofit that provides therapy and assistance dogs to communities within a 75-mile radius of their headquarters in Laurel, which includes the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area.
Finnegan received Autumn from Fidos, which acquires dogs from shelters and breeders. Autumn was bred by Project 2 Heal, a nonprofit breeder for service dogs.
Fidos for Freedom sent Finnegan a training manual several weeks before the puppy’s arrival to learn the proper training protocol. Finnegan and Jared Kovacs, the secondary trainer, are required to attend a weekly training session at Fidos so that Autumn can work with a certified trainer and associate with other dogs in training.
Once more students become trainers, a Fidos trainer will come to the college to teach the course so students don’t have to drive across the Bay each week.
Fetching Freedom is only the first step on a dog’s therapy training journey. The dogs begin the program when they are just 8 weeks old, and won’t be matched with their life partner until they have completed their training at 2 years old.
“With us the puppies will learn basic commands and just generally learn how to be a citizen in the world (walking on leash, going into businesses/restaurants),” Finnegan wrote in an email.
After the student trainers have finished their portion, when the dogs are 8 months to a year old they move on to the Maryland state prison system, where they will receive more specialized training from inmates. This is the part where the dogs learn to be either a hearing, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or mobility service dog, Finnegan said.
For now, Finnegan’s main task is to get the group off the ground.
“I want the organization to be a well-known and well-loved community on campus and in Chestertown. And of course I also want our students to be successful in raising puppies for service,” she said.
So far, the college and the surrounding community have been supportive of the program.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to show how beneficial working with animals can really be,” Finnegan said.
“Washington College challenges and inspires emerging citizen leaders to discover lives of purpose and passion. What greater purpose than helping your fellow person? Washington College should be so incredibly proud for supporting such an effort by this group of passionate and dedicated students. They are truly living our values,” Pope said.
Fetching Freedom posts progress updates on Autumn’s training and information on the group on its Instagram account, @fetchingwac.