Cali sits in the lobby of the Integrated Sciences Building wearing her red vest. Through the expanse of floor-to-ceiling windows she tracks an overstuffed garbage barrel as it is rolled away from the building. Cali is not pleased. She becomes visibly unsettled, pacing back and forth.
With everyone in the lobby looking at Cali, a yellow Labrador retriever puppy, and Rachel Purington, a Commonwealth Honors College senior fostering the aspiring service dog, Purington interrupts the conversation to take the dog outside.
“Sometimes you just have no idea what’s going to set them off,” Purington explains after she and Cali return. “You have to go right up to what’s bothering them, touch it, let them smell it—show them it’s nothing to be afraid of.”
This technique, called “name and explain,” is one of many that service dog fosterers like Purington use while training the dogs they take care of on campus. At UMass, Service Dog Training is a 3-credit course offered in partnership with Diggity Dogs Service Dogs, a business that owns and trains service dogs for people across the country. Purington estimates that 20 students are currently participating in the program. She herself is a BDIC student focusing on animal behavior and rehabilitation.
Purington was first assigned Cali in March when the dog was three months old. Dogs typically stay in the program until they are about two years old. Before signing up for the course, she had no experience with service dogs at all.
Purington and other student fosterers attend training in nearby Shelburne Falls for three hours a week as part of the course. They are typically assigned a task each week to focus on and videotape themselves training the dogs as a way to study behavior and make adjustments.
Currently, Purington is working on Cali’s fear of hair dryers and teaching the dog to pick up items Purington drops without being commanded to do so. All of the training happens right on campus where Cali lives alongside Rachel in a double room in the Honors Residential Community.
Purington explained that in Massachusetts service dogs in training have the same rights as full-fledged service dogs, including the same housing rights as their guardians. This is different from therapy and emotional support dogs which are not always allowed in public spaces and have modified housing rights.
“Having them on campus is great for them because they’re exposed to so many things,” Purington said. “There are plenty of opportunities to name and explain.” She added that people on campus are becoming more familiar with proper etiquette in terms of interacting with service dogs. They are learning to allow them to work distraction free. “When the vest is on she is working and the vest is usually on,” Purington said about Cali, whose red vest, typical of any service dog, also denotes that she is still in training.
What advice does Purington have for other students who want to foster? “Know how much work it is,” she said.
Purington said she has learned a lot about herself in taking on Cali. “You learn how much you can take,” she explained. “Part of your brain is always focusing on this other living being that you're responsible for. It's about patience and persistence.”
Purington said it will be very difficult to say goodbye to Cali when she eventually graduates from the program. She is looking for ways to incorporate service dog training into her life after graduation in May. About Cali’s future she said, “I know she’s going to go on and really help someone. I know she’s going to be happy working and doing a good job.”