Emma Oaks walks into the Cathedral of Learning. It is her first class of the school year. She feels the gaze from other students as she snuggles into her seat near the front of the room. The others are not so much watching her as they are the black Lab puppy that sits next to her, in its little red vest, wagging its tail.
After the Honors Literature and Science lecture, Oaks, a junior, is stopped by two classmates. They ask to pet Aiden, the puppy, give him some love, and question how he is able to come to class.
“He’s a service dog in training,” answers Oaks, who worked to bring Perfect Fit Canines Campus Scholars to Pitt. The club allows students to help prepare aspiring service dogs.
Aiden gets to come to class, because he is learning, too. Although he is friendly, he doesn’t instinctively know how to guide a special-needs companion through revolving doors, onto buses, or to accomplish any number of other daily activities. He must be educated to do so. That training begins when he and other puppies are in the care of the more than 30 students at Pitt who, with compassion and dedication, help to raise the canines.
Back in 2017, Aiden was the first service dog trainee to saunter onto campus. Today, there are nine service dogs in training at Pitt. They spend up to two years living with the students, who follow Perfect Fit Canines’ training guidelines to increase the animals’ obedience, patience, and socialization. They also participate in two training sessions a month, and caretakers share best practices on social media. Like Aiden, when they’re done, they join the ranks of the country’s more than 380,000 service dogs trained to assist individuals with special needs. More campuses are developing service-training clubs, but in this region, Pitt is a pioneer, says Susan Wagner, executive director of Perfect Fit Canines, a nonprofit organization based in Pittsburgh that specializes in training service dogs for individuals with physical and emotional needs. Wagner, who helped establish and oversees the Pitt chapter, believes campuses are ideal learning environments: “Students are open, gracious. Pitt’s culture of excellence means the students take the job seriously, and the animals do well.”
Wagner points out that there is a growing need locally, statewide, and nationally for a wide range of special-needs service dogs—PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) service dogs, cardiac and seizure alert dogs.
Rachel Taylor, a junior psychology major, is the administrative president for the campus scholars. She joined two years ago because she loves dogs. In that time, she has marveled at how much service dogs can help the people they serve. “They truly change lives,” she says.
This story appeared in the Spring 2019 edition of Pitt Magazine.