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By Colleen Kochensparger
As the air gets colder, two pairs of trainers and dogs are still roaming around campus and learning more about a life spent helping others through the Wildcat Service Dogs program.
Though Miller, Joseph DeCruz’s dog, is no longer training due to an issue with overprotective growling, Katie McKenzie and her dog, Miles, and Jennifer Lyons and her dog, Rory, are still continuing with basic training.
“We’ve come a really long way,” Lyons said of herself and Rory. “She’s kind of a golden child right now.”
Each dog is facing issues such as distracting new sounds and smells around the city.
However, each is experiencing successes as well, continuing to make steady progress toward the eventual goal of being a fully-trained service dog.
Rory is being trained to understand commands with a ‘clicker’ that initially is connected with a treat for the dog in the event of good behavior, instilling positive reinforcement which eventually is connected with the sound alone.
“She’ll break out of a ‘down’ command every once in a while,” Lyons said.
Katie Skarvan, founder and president of Wildcat Service Dogs, is proud of the effort and commitment from dogs, current trainers, and future trainers currently in the group but is yet to be paired with a dog.
“Everyone that’s in the group is really into it; fundraising, recruiting, everything,” Skarvan said.
Skarvan was involved with assistance dogs from a young age, volunteering to work with them since seventh grade.
Her passion for the dogs hasn’t diminished since then.
“I wanted to raise a dog of my own but soccer got in the way, and then I actually ended up moving overseas,” Skarvan said of her early start working with assistance dogs.
Her relocation meant that she would have had to speak fluent Dutch in order to fully train a dog while overseas, so her passion had to be put on hold temporarily.
In the meantime, Skarvan worked with publicly televised dog training events.
When Skarvan finally returned to the States, she initially attended college at Texas A&M before transferring to UK.
“I was struggling with homesickness,” Skarvan said.
She ended up dealing with her homesickness by putting all her energy into training a dog by herself without any pre-existing organization to guide her.
“People saw me (with my service dog) and would approach me and say ‘how can I get involved?’” Skarvan said. So, she had the idea to actually start a training program on campus.
“The dogs we train help people with mobility problems,” such as quadriplegics and other people confined to wheelchairs, Skarvan said. But there are other types of assistance dogs, such as seeing-eye dogs, seizure alert dogs, diabetic assistance dogs, and dogs trained to help those with psychological disorders.
“We’re interested in training dogs to help people with autism,” Skarvan said.
The dogs are already inherently skilled at helping their owners with anxiety and specific problems, even without specific training being implemented yet.
Katie McKenzie gets intense migraines and her dog Miles has already noticed and will help calm her and try to protect her when she is dealing with what McKenzie refers to as an “attack” of her migraines in public.
“It doesn’t surprise me that Miles picked up on that,” Skarvan said.
Wildcat Service Dogs is not the only training program for service dogs on campus; 4 Paws for Ability also has dogs and trainers roaming the campus, Skarvan said.
However, 4 Paws for Ability generally focuses on the socialization of the dogs, and trainers only stay with dogs for a semester, whereas Wildcat Service Dogs trains the dogs for specific disabilities and each dog gets one lifelong trainer.
In addition, 4 Paws for Ability, generally, is more visible than Wildcat Service Dogs, while the latter has more in-depth training. Still, both are working toward the same goal—helping as many dogs as possible to help as many people as possible.