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Schooling Bebe: College of Wooster students train service dog

Thursday, January 24, 2008 3:25 AM

By Kathy Lynn Gray

ERIC ALBRECHT | Dispatch photos

Nick Weida and Bebe head to class.

WOOSTER, Ohio -- Bebe the Labrador retriever was getting an earful about supply, demand and prevailing market price.

Whether she preferred the topic to lectures last semester on the intricacies of memory and the life of Mahatma Gandhi was anyone's guess.

Class time is part of the young Lab's life at the College of Wooster, where a houseful of students is training her to become a service dog.

Bebe belongs to Susquehanna Service Dogs in Harrisburg, Pa., which trains canines to assist people who are blind or deaf, or have other disabilities. Before more advanced training, the dog spends a year or so with a family, learning social skills and basic commands.

Wooster senior Nick Weida fostered dogs through the group while in high school and missed having one at college. So he asked school officials: Could they bend the "no-pets-in-campus-housing" rule and let him live in a campus house with a dog in training?

Like many other colleges, Wooster has school-owned houses where juniors and seniors can live together. At Wooster, students present a proposal and compete for the opportunity; each group's plan must include a community-service aspect.

Nick Weida corrects Bebe during a microeconomics lecture at the College of Wooster.

Weida's idea "came as kind of an odd request," said Kurt Holmes, dean of students at the college. "But we felt this fit into Wooster's mission to teach people to be civically engaged and be creative."

Weida, of Lancaster, Pa., convinced Nancy Fierer, director of the Susquehanna program, that students could socialize a dog on campus. Fierer let him try, she said, because he'd worked so closely with the group while in high school.

She has been happy with the results.

Last school year, the students trained Rocco, set to be placed as a service dog in February, Fierer said.

"He was trial by fire," recalled senior Joel Keelor, 21, a chemistry major from Cincinnati who lives in the "dog house."

Rocco loved to run off with residents' socks, Weida said, and wasn't calm enough to accompany students to class until early 2007.

Bebe has been a relief of sorts -- lively but easier to train and less stubborn, he said, acknowledging that his year of experience managing a dog on campus has helped, too.

Each of the nine students in the house assumes certain dog duties each week. Early risers feed her breakfast and take her on a walk; night owls exercise her before bedtime. Each also trains her in a basic command -- such as "sit," "stay" or "come" -- using visual and audio cues.

Susquehanna provides leashes, food and other supplies.

Weida, a pre-med student, and a few others take Bebe to class, to the store and to campus meetings so she learns to sit quietly at their feet, a skill she'll need as a service dog.

ERIC ALBRECHT | Dispatch photos

Bebe waits for her trainer, Nick Weida, before the two head out.

"The goal is for her to be as unexcited as possible in class," said Weida, who parcels out small dog treats when needed and keeps his foot on her leash to keep her calm under his desk.

Often, other students don't realize that she's in the room.

Outside the classroom, she's all dog -- sniffing up a storm as she walks back home and greeting each "housemate" with a wagging tail that rarely stops. When someone is eating, she sits by his or her side; at night, she sometimes hops in bed with senior Erin Fortin of Avon Lake.

"She's a bed hog," said Fortin, 21, a chemistry major.

Although caring for and training Bebe can be a chore when schedules get busy, the reward is great, said senior Patrick Christensen, 22, of Cincinnati.

"When you're coming home from a bad day and you see her wagging her tail," he said, "it loosens the mood."

Sage Weaver, 20, a neuroscience major from Indianapolis and the only junior living in the house, calls Bebe her "de-stressor."

And senior Kelly Knapp, 21, a biochemistry major from the Cleveland suburb of Chesterland, said the pup will "put a smile on your face, no matter what."

Although Weida has been the driving force behind the program, Wooster might continue it after he graduates in May. He recently learned that another group of students wants to work with an Ohio service-dog organization and host a dog on campus.

Perhaps the news can help soften the most difficult aspect of the program: surrendering the dog at the end of the school year.

"They're like your best friend, and then you have to up and leave them," said Christensen, a psychology major. "I loved Rocco to death. But the important thing is that they're going to a place to help someone."

By Kathy Lynn Gray
This article originally appeared in The Columbus Dispatch Website.

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