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Raising Rocko – to Become a Service Dog
THE COLLEGE OF WOOSTER, WOOSTER, OH / July 9, 2007 – Economics major Nick Weida was convinced about the excellence of his proposal: Take one Labrador puppy; hand pick a group of committed Wooster students; put them together in one of the college's program houses. And then let the learning begin.
First he had to persuade trainers at the Susquehanna Service Dogs program in Harrisburg, Penn., to trust one of their valuable puppies with college students living 265 miles away, instead of to one of their customary, local foster families. The plan hadn't been tried before, but the Susquehanna trainers were acquainted with Weida's past success as a “puppy raiser.” As a high school student, he had fostered two dogs who had become successful service providers to people with disabilities.
And then Weida, housing coordinator with the Wooster Volunteer Network, had to convince college authorities that the project fulfilled the objectives of Residential Life's service houses. “The project's success depended on a close-knit community,” he says. “It was the epitome of what a service house project should be.”
When two month old, mischievous Rocko arrived at Troyer House in the summer of 2006, the 10 students knew there were rocky times ahead. To the schedule of residents' weekly responsibilities, Weida added the revolving role of “worrier.” “That's the person who makes sure that everybody's on task with meals, walks, and training,” he explains. When Rocko ate one too many dirty socks, the worrier's job expanded to “elimination observer and recorder.”
Modifying Rocko's behavior exclusively with positive reinforcement techniques, the Troyer House team soon taught him the basics– to sit, lie, and wait. Because a service dog may support the needs of people with a wide range of disabilities – from autism, to cerebral palsy, to hearing loss – the animal must have many skills, taught with both voice and hand commands. “We can be creative and take it as far as we want,” says Weida (who concedes that teaching Rocko to open the refrigerator door had obvious draw-backs.)
Rocko wasn't the only one who learned. Team Troyer had weekly meetings, submitted monthly reports to headquarters, and fulfilled invitations to demonstrate Rocko's skills in college classes.
In early July, Rocko left his Wooster home to continue training at Susquehanna's headquarters in Harrisburg. “It's tough to give up a dog, until you see how it can completely lighten the life of its owner,” says Weida. “Rocko will bring more than the sum of the tasks he can perform.
His departure blues were lightened by the rollicking presence of Bebe the pup, who arrived last spring and, like her brother Rocko, will spend the next year at Troyer House with her 10 foster parents.
This article originally appeared in The College of Wooster's website.