By Amy Rudolph
Washington College has a bright new student on their hands who just happens to have paws. Stuart, a 9-month-old yellow Labrador retriever, is the second puppy being trained by Tya Pope, assistant director of Intercultural Affairs. Stuart is training to become a medical alert dog, much like his predecessor, Gabe.
Stuart and Gabe are both from the Canine Partners for Life program. According to Canine Partners’ website, their mission is to, “increase the independence and quality of life of individuals with physical, developmental, and cognitive disabilities or who are in other situations of need.”
The way that they achieve their mission is “by providing and sustaining professionally trained service and companion dogs.”
Canine Partners’ work is done primarily through their board of directors and the multitude of volunteers. Pope is one of these volunteers.
Pope first became involved with Canine Partners through her connection with their director of development. Originally starting as a volunteer at Canine Partners’ events, Pope took classes to learn how to handle the dogs, just in case.
Her volunteering took a big turn when she was asked to be a community home for Gabe.
“So many puppies were born in November/December that my friend Daniel said to me, ‘So, you took the classes, do you want a puppy?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll take a puppy.’”
For Stuart, he was raised in a women’s correctional facility in Maryland from the time that he was 8 weeks old until he was placed with Pope in early August. The first year of a service dog’s training is primarily focused on socialization and housebreaking.
In both the correctional setting and on the College campus, Stuart is given the opportunity to meet many new people and experience new routines, skills he will need later in life once he graduates from the program.
Socializing is no problem for Stuart.
“He is really affectionate. The second he sees a person…he wants to go say hi,” Pope said.
Part of Stuart’s training, however, is to realize that he cannot always be pet.
Pope said, “He has to be okay with, ‘No you can’t [go say hi], you have to focus on me, we are working right now. If I say you can be pet then you can be pet, but otherwise, no.’”
Though these pups are adorable and ready to love anyone, Pope would like to remind community members of their true purpose.
“Once they are out and actually working and have gone through all of the training, it is really important that you don’t engage with them, you don’t make eye contact, you ignore them. It is similar to having a wheelchair, you wouldn’t stare at a wheelchair and say, ‘Can I pet you?’ It is that same concept…this is just another aid.”
Stuart and Gabe will end up serving different purposes than Puck, the College’s visiting therapy dog. While students can pet Puck, Stuart needs to learn to adjust to a working life as a service dog. Though they can’t be pet while on the job, once their harness comes off at home, Pope says they are back in full puppy mode.
Part of this early process is learning basic service dog etiquette like sitting still for long periods of time, walking next to their owner and not just walking up to people to be pet.
This is very hard training for a puppy, but Pope said, “There are things that Gabe got used to pretty quickly like going to a meeting and just sitting down and relaxing. Stuart is like, ‘No I play all the time, that’s what I do. What do you want me to sit down for?’ Eventually, he needs to learn that you just need to chill especially if he’s in a situation in a doctor’s office, he can’t just be walking all over the place doing his own thing.”
Once his year in the community socialization phase is complete, Stuart will train for a year-and-a half to pick up cues and signals from his handlers that may very well save their lives.
While Stuart did take time out of his training to pose for a photo, he did not have time to comment.