Mary Kiolbasa poses with dogs from Viking Pups, the on-campus program she founded last year at Augustana College that trains dogs for service careers.
When Oden shows up for class, he usually just lies on the floor. He’s hard at work though; Oden is a golden retriever training in the Viking Pups program, attending class with a handler to practice the necessary patience required to be a service dog.
Mary Kiolbasa, 19, founded Viking Pups last year as a freshman at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., where she’s majoring in psychology and planning on going into occupational therapy. Now in its second year, the program involves approximately 40 students and faculty, all working together to prepare the dogs for service careers in schools and private homes. Kiolbasa said she was surprised at how quickly the campus embraced the program, which involves bringing the dogs to class.
“I expected there to be professors who were hesitant,” she said. “It’s been so awesome. I get professors who ask, ‘When can I have a dog in my class?’ The campus has so embraced the dogs that it’s been absolutely amazing.”
Currently, students work with four dogs: Bobo, Cami, Zorn and Oden. Since the dogs are not allowed in the dorms, they go home at night with faculty members or off-campus seniors. To be a handler, students must first undergo training with the Quad Cities Canine Assistance Network, Inc. (QC CAN), which partners with Viking Pups to supply the dogs, identify clients and provide ongoing supervision.
USA TODAY wrote Wednesday that comfort dogs are working with survivors of the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut. Viking Pups grooms animals for similar services.
“Dogs speak a universal language between all people,” Kiolbasa said. “Just the calming effect they have on people is so nice and comforting, and they can make you feel safe — even just sitting by you and putting their paw on you.”
Oden is nearing completion of his training. Soon, he will transition to his new home with a 15-year-old girl who has Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes medical and developmental issues such as cardiovascular problems and learning disabilities. Kiolbasa said it’s been rewarding to watch the two connect.
“Her mom leaves her notes saying, ‘Today’s Oden day!’ and she comes running into training,” Kiolbasa said. “You start to realize that the impact of why we’re training these dogs. As much as it’s about us enjoying these dogs, it’s so much about the difference they make in someone else’s life.”
Dogs train in the program for about a year. They start with the basics: Sit, stay. Then they move on to more advanced skills, like waiting by the door on command or ignoring food dropped on the ground. Finally, they work on task-specific training unique to the animal’s future responsibilities. For Oden, that includes helping his client with mobility issues, bracing for her as a support and retrieving objects. But he’ll provide more than just a physical service, Kiolbasa said.
“Williams [syndrome] has a social component, where they don’t always understand social barriers,” she said. “Students at school have learned to take advantage of that for her, so Oden will help provide a social barrier for her. He knows commands where he will stand in front of her and help provide that social safety so that she can feel safe.”
Oden is also trained to lie with her in times of high anxiety, such as storms and loud noises.
Kiolbasa said she was struck at the difference these dogs make for their clients.
“Right now, Bobo is sitting on his back rolling around, goofing off with a toy, but it’s amazing to know he’s going to change someone’s life forever in just a matter of months,” she said. “That impact is what we all do this for.”
Canine graduates of Viking Pups serve more than just individual clients. Last year, Kiolbasa worked with another dog named Tucker, who was placed in a nearby elementary school as a facility dog. He’s even got his own student ID.
“He works with everyone and anyone that needs him, be it kids in special education, kids with emotional problems or behavioral” problems, she said. “It’s just amazing the impact he’s had at the school.”
Kiolbasa noted that many students initially volunteer for the program for the opportunity to play with the dogs.
“By the end, they realize that it’s not about hanging out with the dog, it’s about the difference you make,” she said. “Like when you meet the clients and watch them with the dog, or you see [the girl] who’s starting transition work with Oden. She gets through her week by getting to come to training to work with Oden.”
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