David Crockett/Nevada Sagebrush
“It takes a village to raise a child, but for us, we have a village raising a service dog.”
Tiffany Hunter, University of Nevada, Reno graduate, described her experience with service dogs while speaking this past Sunday at the campus’ first Dog Fest Walk n’ Roll, a nationwide event held to raise funds and awareness for service dogs.
UNR’s Center for Student Engagement has partnered with Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit organization dedicated to training service dogs, to organize and host the event.
The half-mile walk around the campus began at 9 a.m., starting and ending at the Joe Crowley Student Union. Once the route was completed, participants gathered in front of the Joe to enjoy the remainder of the event consisting of informative speakers and dog-friendly activities.
It may be a dog walk around campus, but the significance of the event does not require a dog to participate, according to Chris Partridge, the co-chair of the event and a coordinator for the Center for Student Engagement.
“What we are trying to do is bring more community members to campus and also work with students to show support for this organization,” Partridge said.
The “default goal,” as Partridge referred to it, that Canine Companions sets for each event is to raise $60,500. The cost of raising and training one dog from conception to retirement, though, is only a little over $50,000.
Lin Nelson, a long-time volunteer for Canine Companions, has been working on the event with Partridge since March.
Nelson stated that $60,500 is an ambitious goal, but not necessary.
“Raising $50,000 would be enough. That puts one dog all the way through,” Nelson said.
She explained that when a puppy is raised, they are trained with a volunteer for 18 months, then taken to what they call “puppy college” or advanced training for six months. Once graduated, they are matched with someone who is disabled.
According to Nelson, Canine Companions has a specific breeding program and they only work with full-bred Golden Retrievers, full-bred Labrador Retrievers or a crossbreed between the two due to their genetics and 100 percent consistency.
Hunter is well aware of the cost and dedication raising a service dog requires because she refers to one as her best friend. He is not a volunteer, but a 5-year-old black Labrador retriever named Pongo.
Hunter spends her days confined to a wheelchair, while Pongo spends his days by her side.
Pongo’s training with Canine Companions has allowed him to create a manageable reality for Hunter.
Because Hunter does not have the ability to reach, Pongo is able to perform tasks that she cannot.
“He can open handicapped doors, turn lights on and off, hold bags and even do transactions in a store by giving money to a clerk,” Hunter said.
Nelson has been working with Hunter and Canine Companions since the beginning. She sees Hunter as someone with a story that could potentially impact the community.
“She’s in a wheelchair, but quite frankly, I’m not even sure that I know what her actual disability is. It just never seemed to occur to me,” Nelson said.
Nelson is convinced that before the organization hosted events, many were unaware of dogs like Pongo and their ability to provide a convenient life for those with disabilities.
Megan Kennedy, a graduate from UNR, has sparked Nelson’s interest as well.
Being deaf since birth and unable to hear smoke alarms or doorbells, Kennedy had a lot of safety concerns when she left for school and was living on her own.
“I wasn’t sure that Canine Companions could help me until I was able to go in and see what they do,” Kennedy said.
With the assistance from Razz, her hearing dog from Canine Companions, Kennedy was able to graduate from UNR in December 2013.
Canine Companions has trained Razz to alert Kennedy with specific actions for different situations.
“With the smoke detector, Razz will sit down so I know the sound is up on the ceiling,” Kennedy said. “When the doorbell rings, she’s impossible to ignore.”
Razz will jump up and press her nose to the side of Kennedy’s leg until she stands up, then leads her to wherever the sound is coming from.
Razz’s training has allowed her to pick up on each sound that Kennedy does not hear, such as cars backing out.
“I have actually been hit before, so she will body walk me and push me out of the way,” Kennedy said.
After two years of Razz’s companionship, Kennedy is applying for law school, working for a law firm in Truckee, California and successfully living on her own.
“I can’t even explain it,” Kennedy said. “It’s truly life changing.”
Nelson began her work with Canine Companions as a volunteer puppy raiser, through which she developed a passion for service dogs and all that they do for those in need.
She has witnessed, first hand, the expertise each of these dogs encompass.
“Every time a story is shared, like the graduates, someone new gets on board,” Nelson said.
Her ideas on how to get more people involved with the organization begins with UNR’s Center for Student Engagement.
“What I would like to see is a student run Canine Companions chapter on campus,” Nelson said.
Nelson pointed out that by contributing to meaningful volunteer work, students would have the opportunity to develop their resumes in the future.
“This is where they would be getting the experience,” Nelson said.
From what she has seen so far, Nelson believes that UNR students have the potential to expand Canine Companions for Independence even further.
“I just want to keep building this momentum so we don’t lose it,” Nelson said.
Maddison Cervantes and Jennifer Marbley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org