It’s Raining (Wild)Cats and Dogs at the University of Kentucky

It’s Raining (Wild)Cats and Dogs at the University of Kentucky

A bond that will forever change both dog and human.
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LEXINGTON, Ky.—An elite team of eight is making a difference on the campus of the University of Kentucky. As students walk to and from class, they stop and stare at the members of this group and often snap pictures.

At first glance, one may venture that the students are mesmerized by players from UK’s ever popular, eight-time NCAA championship men’s basketball team, but they would be wrong. These members of this team are of much shorter stature.

The Wildcat Service Dogs are an elite group of service dogs in training that are making a difference with helping hands, make that helping paws, on UK’s campus.

Founded by Katie Skarvan in 2014, Wildcat Service Dogs is an organization run completely by students. The program raises and trains service dogs for the first 10-12 months of their lives before they go on to specialized training with Assistance Dogs for Achieving Independence.

Even more amazing than the fact that these dogs learn to pay cashiers with credit cards or open doors, is the unique relationship that develops between the trainer and dog over the course of their time in the program.

Upon receiving their puppy, trainers are responsible for socializing, teaching, housing, and financing their dogs. In addition to working with their puppy, trainers must attend weekly training sessions and once-a-month socialization outings, as well as completing progress reports to define their dog’s improvement for the week.

Molly Mathistad, current Vice President of WSD and a trainer of one-year-old Hudson who graduated the WSD program Oct 14, reflected on their close bond.

“I grew to love Hudson with all of my heart because of how goofy, happy, and loving he was” she said, “I knew that he would be there to make my day with that smile every time I looked at him, just like he knew that I'd always be smiling back.”

It is this special relationship between trainer and dog that make this program so successful and allows it to make such an impact on the campus.

Mathistad and Hudson’s emotional connection was reflected in their working relationship.

“Creating a bond with your training partner is one of the most important things to their training,” Mathistad says.

“A lot of training a service dog is just making everything that you possibly can into a positive experience, and when they know that nothing negative is going to happen because they look to you and you're excited about what's happening, they're much more open to it.”

The WSD program is set up to teach the dogs basic commands first, and mastering them is tantamount to their future success. They learn to sit, down, stay, and watch as their initial commands in addition to being potty-trained and taught to respond to their names.

Socialization is an imperative factor in their training as well. Service dogs must become acclimated to various scents, sounds, people, places, and environments.

The trainer is the key tool in accomplishing these goals. Their emotions in regards to training sessions have a heavy impact on the dog.

“If they [the dog] feel you getting frustrated, they shut down as well. If they see you acting scared, they can react to that too; and conversely, if they see that you're excited about something, they'll be more open to it as well,” says Mathistad.

Wildcat Service Dogs also gives members the chance to be “sitters”. These members are an incredible aid for trainers who need to work, study, or do something personal that their dog cannot be a part of. Sitters take the dog into their hands for the allotted time that the trainer needs covered. During this time they are responsible for ensuring that the dog continues to practice the skills that they are being trained to do.

Thus, sitters have an opportunity to form a relationship with the dogs in the program as well, a bond that makes an impact on their own lives just as much as the dogs.

“My favorite part of sitting the dogs in Wildcat Service Dogs is getting to work with each dog in the program, and getting to know each of their different personalities, said Kate Clowes, a trained sitter for WSD.

Clowes has been sitter with the program for a year now and loves every minute.

“I get a chance to be a part of something great, and I get to work with amazing dogs to do it,” she says, “I get to see firsthand the relationship that these animals have with their trainers, and I get to be a small part of that as well.”

Both Clowes’ and Mathistad’s work with WSD reflect the mission of the organization and their desire to touch the lives of the community through the dogs they work with.

Through developing numerous skills, socialization training and preparation for future advanced training, each dog from WSD are becoming the perfect aide and best friend for their future owners.

Each dog’s trainer is a piece of helping them accomplish that.

Mathistad explains that knowing she’s making a difference makes the experience so much more special.

“The dedication, time, patience, and selflessness which this process requires can take so much out of you by the end of the day, but that dog will change your whole world and most importantly, you'll get to see your best friend changing someone else's.”

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To The Pup I Wish I Could Hold One More Time

You don't realize how much enjoyment you get out of filling up a food bowl until you no longer need to do it.
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Honestly, what did we do to deserve our pets?

If you're lucky, your furry little friend is with you for a good amount of time. Or in my case, you literally grow up before their eyes.

Over the years, they see you at your highest and lowest moments without an ounce of judgment. There is nothing like coming home to an excited puppy that makes you feel as if you're the greatest thing to have graced this earth.

As life goes on, we sometimes forget our pets are aging just like we are. I don't know why, but I guess I always had this thought that my puppy was like Santa and could live forever. Unfortunately, the time for my pup to spread his love somewhere other than our house quickly came upon us. This place is what I would like to call "puppy heaven."

For others who have lost their furry companion, I'm so sorry. I never knew a dog could become such a big part of your life and family that you feel as if your world is ending when it is their time go to.

The heartache is severe, but the memories will live on forever. I think we can all agree, no other pet could ever compare to the first. As I take time to reflect on my time with my dog, I realize he taught me more than I ever could have imagined.

First being, forgive and forget.

Life is too short to hold a grudge. Let it go. We spend so much time and energy being mad over problems that in the big picture are so minuscule. Think about it, how many times did you yell at your dog for doing something they weren't supposed to do? Were their feelings hurt? Of course, but they still loved you. They still decided to snuggle next to on the couch instead of sitting in their cage just to be near you.

Always be there for someone when they need you.

Although they can't talk, they're the best listeners. I can proudly admit there were MANY times when I put my pup on my bed and just cried for hours. But you know what the best part was? Shadow always knew when I was upset about something. I'm convinced animals know how you're feeling before you do. They're going to give you all of the love you need at that moment.

I've learned it's important to help someone when they're down because someday you'll need them to do it for you. Within the final year of Shadow's life, this came into play more than ever. My family and I suddenly noticed how difficult it was for him to get up on his own two feet. It broke my heart. He looked so helpless. But for every minute he paused his life for us, we had to do the same for him. No matter how many times we helped him, it could never equal all of the times he helped us.

Family comes first.

Seriously though. Cherish everyone in your life. Shadow showed me the true definition of unconditional love. Yes, you get frustrated with each other, but the love is always there. He was always so happy to be with us whether it was one-on-one or all of us together.

You don't realize how much enjoyment you get out of filling up a food bowl until you no longer need to do it. Our pets become such a significant part of our day's for years on end. Now, we feel as lost as they do when we leave them home for a weekend alone.

Needless to say, the house is much quieter now, and it makes you miss the times you would beg your pup to stop barking every time the mailman came by.

A guess a takeaway message from all of this would be to appreciate the little things in life. We spend so much time running around and stressing ourselves out while our dogs are so content with a treat after going to the bathroom. Slow it down.

Recently I saw a post about a 6-year-old's answer as to why dogs don't live as long as people. The response gave me a sense of closure. For those of you feeling the same pain, I hope it gives you some too.

"People are born so that they can learn how to live a good life. Like loving everybody all of the time, and being nice. Well, dogs already know how to do that, so they don't have to stay as long."

To my "little man" and our "unconditional lover boy" up in heaven, I hope there are endless amounts of belly rubs and treats for you. You were the best pup I could have ever asked for. I hope you knew how loved you were and still are.

We will miss you every day for the rest of our lives. Rest in Peace, little guy.


Cover Image Credit: Jamie Burton

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If You're Not Volunteering At An Animal Shelter Already, You Should Be

I may come back covered in dirt and fur, but it's worth it.
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I've always heard that volunteering at an animal shelter was super rewarding. I volunteered at my local animal shelter back home for about two weeks when I was younger, so I didn't get too much out of it besides being excited that I was always around dogs.

Now that I am volunteering at The Humane Society of West Alabama, a NO KILL shelter, here in Tuscaloosa just about every day, I can say that I feel fulfilled and proud to be a volunteer.

Every day I wake up at 8:00 a.m., eat my breakfast, take my dog out and drive 15 minutes to the "cathouse" shelter for the HSWA to help out. I'm assigned a room (I typically work with the kitten room, eek!) and then I sweep, mop, scoop out litter boxes, change out blankets and beds, and of course, play with the babies. Currently, there are eight cats in the kitten room.

They range from a few weeks old to almost a year. The kitten room is so much fun because they're ready for attention at ALL times. My favorite is Carlos because he reaches his arms up asking for a hug EVERY DAY. Y'all, I can't.

The cool thing about the HSWA is that all of the cats are free to roam. You never know if you'll find one of the cats in a cat "tree", in a bed, laying in a litter box (yes, it's a thing) or just curled up in a window sill.There's also a patio room for the cats, which we call the catio. Get it?!

I haven't started fully volunteering at the "doghouse" yet, but the few times I've been so far has been exhilarating. These dogs usually come from places of abuse or neglectful situations, and they are SO HAPPY to see you every time.

I take them out in their particular playgroups, pick up poop, have fun in the sandbox, you name it! Once it gets hot enough, I can't wait to bring them a kid pool to splash around in! The HSWA also makes it a point to work on crate and house training while the animals are there.

www.humanesocietyofwa.org and fill out an adoption application. Adopt, don't shop!

Cover Image Credit: Morgan Moore

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