Canine classmate gains socialization skills during week on campus

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Thousands of students roam Penn State’s campus every day, going from class to class. In early February, that included a student with four legs and a tail.

Bishop, a 9-month-old lab/golden retriever mix, joined senior broadcast journalism major Nikki Cheshire everywhere she went for a week. Bishop is a service dog in training.

Cheshire and her family are volunteer puppy raisers for Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), a California-based nonprofit organization that enhances the lives of people with disabilities by providing highly trained assistance dogs and ongoing support to ensure quality partnerships.

Bishop, the seventh dog raised by Cheshire and her family, was on campus to get socialization training for a week. He’s the first dog Cheshire has had on campus for an extended period of time.

“I’m the youngest person in my family, so he doesn’t get experience with classrooms, the hectic schedule of school kind of thing, living in a small apartment, because he lives in a house with my parents at home. I live in a very small apartment shared with another person. Also, he gets experience with things like buses that he doesn’t get to experience at home,” said Cheshire, a native of Great Falls, Virginia.

“If he lives with somebody maybe in a city, he’s going to be in a situation kind of like this. My family lives in the suburbs. This feels a little more city-ish. So, he gets used to that. He could end up going to a college student or a kid in high school.”

Cheshire began training service dogs in 2009 as part of her Girl Scout Gold Award project. At the time, she was 16 and had to have her mom co-raise the dog because she was under 18. Following her experience raising Hamlet, Cheshire wrote a book and sent all of the proceeds to CCI.

“I wanted to do something that would make a difference in somebody’s life and I loved dogs, so naturally I wanted to do something like that,” said Cheshire.

Volunteer raisers like Cheshire and her family receive puppies for a year and a half, teaching them 40 commands.

After the 18 months, the dogs receive six to nine months of advanced training by a professional at the nearest CCI chapter. There, the trainers decide what the dog’s biggest strengths are to determine what service they may provide.

These categories include: service dogs (partnered with adults with disabilities to assist with tasks and increase independence), skilled companions (trained to perform tasks for an adult or child with a disability under the guidance of a facilitator), hearing dogs (trained to recognize and respond to environmental sounds by alerting their deaf or hard of hearing partner) and facility dogs (highly trained and trustworthy dogs partnered with a facilitator who directly services clients with special needs). According to Cheshire, only about 40 percent of the dogs graduate from that second level of training.

“When we give them back, we cry out of sadness. They become your best friend. They go everywhere with you,” said Cheshire. “We take them to the movies, the mall, on airplanes. I took one to prom when I was in high school. They go everywhere with us. So, we get very attached, and so when we give them back, we cry because we’re losing our best friend.

“But, then when we see them with their person, we cry again, but it’s out of happiness because we just see how much they mean to these people, and it would be selfish for us to keep them because of what a difference they make.”

Upon graduation, dogs meet their potential companion and spend two weeks working with that person, who decides whether or not to keep in touch with the volunteer family. So far, Cheshire’s family keeps in touch with all of the people who now have their dogs.

Dogs that don’t pass the extended training are first offered back to the puppy raisers as a pet. Cheshire's family has two dogs at home as a result of that offer. If the puppy raiser can’t take them, Cheshire said there is a waiting list for people to receive a well-trained dog who couldn’t be a service dog for a $500 donation to CCI. The waiting list is currently closed due to large demand, though. According to Cheshire, some reasons dogs don't pass can include medical issues or if they're easily distracted, which can inhibit their ability to keep their person safe.

Once fully trained, the dogs are worth about $45,000 to $60,000 each, according to Cheshire, and can do things such as turn on and off lights, fetch sodas from the fridge, and open and close doors. One of the dogs they raised can now do laundry.

“I love being able to help people in a way that is different,” said Cheshire. “It makes such a huge difference in people’s lives. It gives them independence. It’s something that if you make a donation, it may help once, but this kind of thing, it helps them every day. Plus, we’ve learned so much from these guys. They teach us, too.”

Last Updated February 15, 2016