UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN River Falls
UW-River Falls student Grace Johnson shows Copper, a dog she will help train to be an assistance animal, her open hand after feeding him a treat after Copper and other dogs were dropped off at UWRF Sept. 14. Johnson is one of 21 students who will work with 10 assistance dogs on campus as part of the new Falcon FETCH (Fostering Education Through Campus Hosting) program. UWRF photo.
Sept. 21, 2023 - The 21 University of Wisconsin-River Falls students gathered outside the Lydecker Living Learning Center on Sept. 14 come from different places and have diverse future plans. They had gathered because of one commonality: their affinity for dogs.
In fact, these students like dogs so much that they’re willing to live with the animals day and night for this academic year, part of a new program at UW-River Falls where students train their four-legged friends as assistance dogs that will later be paired with people who need them to help overcome disabilities or health issues.
“As soon as I heard this was available, I was going to do it,” Grace Johnson, a junior from New Richmond majoring in animal science-companion animal management, said of participating in the Falcon FETCH (Fostering Education Through Campus Hosting) program that began at UWRF this semester. “When it comes to dogs, I like everything about them.”
Students like Johnson are participating in Falcon FETCH, a partnership between UW-River Falls and Can Do Canines, an assistance dog training organization based in New Hope, Minn. Chris Hergenrader, assistant professor of animal science who oversees Falcon FETCH, reached out to Can Do Canines about a year ago to see if creating an assistance dog training program on campus through them was possible.
“The driving force was to continue to develop the companion animal program and offer students hands-on experience while participating with a partner who makes a huge difference in the community,” Hergenrader said of starting the program.
Students won’t just be training dogs but will be learning from them as well. Student teams of two are paired with one dog which they will live with and care for on campus.
Students will stay with their dogs in Stratton Hall, with much of the training taking place at the Lydecker Living Learning Center. The dogs will spend this semester or longer at UWRF, then undergo more training through Can Do Canines before they are paired with a person in need of assistance.
Other universities, such as the University of Minnesota, partner dogs with students to provide service dog training, but few have incorporated that effort into a living and learning community with courses focused on service dog training as will be the case at UWRF, Hergenrader said.
“It is important that our students are able to have the opportunity to apply what they learn through opportunities such as this,” he said. “It takes the students' learning to an entirely different level.”
UW-River Falls started a separate service dog training program in 2016 called Assistance Dog Education Program and Training (ADEPT). That program was in conjunction with the Minnesota-based nonprofit Pawsitive Perspectives Assistance Dogs (PawPADs), but it is no longer affiliated with UWRF.
Love of dogs
Students’ love of dogs was evident as they were paired with the animals they will help train and care for. Bella Saxton-Jenson and Jessica Keller, sophomores who are animal science-companion animal management majors, played with Pretzel, a female 15-month-old black Labrador who they will care for and train.
Saxton-Jenson, from Elk Mound, and Keller, from Waukesha, acknowledged that caring for Pretzel day and night will prove challenging at times. But knowing that Pretzel will one day help someone in need of assistance makes the commitment worth the work, they said.
“Even on our hard days, it’s going to be worth it when you realize you’re training a dog that is going to be helping people who really need it,” Keller said.
Nearby, sophomores Chesney Eschbach, of Decatur, Ill., majoring in animal science-companion animal management, and Erika Richtsmeier, of Lino Lakes, Minn., majoring in social work, worked with their two-year-old golden Labrador, Copper. Along with their love of dogs, they said they’re motivated to be part of Falcon FETCH because of the opportunity to train dogs to help others.
“It’s amazing the ways that these dogs can help people,” Richtsmeier said, “and I want to be a part of that.”
Eschbach came to UW-River Falls specifically because of Falcon FETCH. Last year she attended junior college in Illinois and came across a story about the dog-training program set to begin at UWRF. She messaged Hergenrader, who told her there was just one spot open for the course this fall. Eschbach took it.
“I just decided I want to be a part of this,” she said. “It seems like the right fit for me.”
It’s not just the assistance dogs who will benefit from Falcon FETCH, Saxton-Jenson said. Students like her who will work with the animals will gain from the experience, she said.
“Dogs can really help with mental health,” she said. “Who can be upset or sad when you’re around a dog? They care about you no matter what. Even on your down days, they give you a reason to keep going.”
‘Doing a good thing’
Emily Hedenland, lead program trainer for Can Do Canines, said students and others who train assistance dogs are motivated by a desire to help the people. Trained assistance dogs can help with a variety of tasks, ranging from helping function with mobility issues to monitoring low blood sugar levels.
Students benefit from their companionship with the dogs they’re training, Hedenland said, noting the animals “seem to have some mental health benefits for students.” Students also gain valuable experience that will help them land jobs in the animal science world, she said.
“This experience is really something that will set these students apart on a resume,” Hedenland said.
Johnson said she hopes to work one day as a dog trainer. While helping care for a dog in addition to attending classes could prove challenging, she said the way the program is organized will help students and their dogs succeed. She sees Falcon FETCH as “an amazing opportunity” for her and other participants to gain valuable experience.
“It makes me feel proud to be a part of this,” Johnson said, “like I’m doing a good thing by helping other people succeed in life by training these dogs.”