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.”