Duke’s Puppy Kindergarten is looking for volunteers to raise service dogs

Maestro spends his days like most kindergarteners: playing outside with friends, taking afternoon naps, enjoying snacks in the classroom, and learning to share his toys with his classmates.

It’s a simple life for this 11-week-old golden retriever-lab mix at Duke Puppy Nursery.

Part of the university’s Center for Canine Cognition, a research program studying the mental abilities of dogs, the nursery helps prepare puppies to become service dogs for people with disabilities.

“We’re trying to help raise more service dogs,” said Vanessa Woods, director of Puppy Daycare.

Maestro is one of four pups in the current class. From age 8 to 20 weeks, she’ll be doing all the standard puppy activities: walks, naps, tummy rubs, and playtime with the other pups (Nancy, Neely, and Madeline).

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But as part of Duke’s program, he will also begin training and testing his self-control, memory, temperament and cognition, qualities that will make him a good candidate for service dog work later in life.

Since 2019, the Canine Cognition Center has partnered with Canine Companions, a nonprofit organization that trains service dogs in advanced commands and then pairs them with those in need. These dogs have gone on to help people who are on the autism spectrum, use wheelchairs, or have post-traumatic stress disorder and a number of other conditions that can affect people’s ability to care for themselves.

“I think everyone has had the experience of losing our independence, at least temporarily,” Woods said.

Once fully trained, service dogs can perform a number of tasks for their owners. They can turn lights on and off, pick up items from the floor, pick up a bag or purse, and even help with laundry by putting them in and out of the washer, dryer, and laundry basket.

Lab coordinator Candler Cusato said these small tasks can change a person’s lifestyle.

Woods has seen the impact of service dogs firsthand. One of her team’s earliest graduates became a service dog for a little girl in Charlotte with severe autism and cerebral malaria, which can cause neurological and behavioral problems, cognitive deficits and epilepsy in survivors.

Woods said service dogs can be especially helpful in situations like this, where someone is struggling with social interaction.

“(The dog) focuses on people,” Woods said, opening the door for interaction with others without forcing the dog’s handler to be the center of attention.

Testing self-control

Training can challenge a dog’s self-control.

Woods often places a treat in front of the dog and asks them to wait for a hand signal to eat. As training progresses, Woods will increase the difficulty of the exercise. Additional treats can be placed in front of the dog, or the treat can be hidden from the dog’s sight, usually under the cup, and the dog must learn to believe that the treat is still there even if they can’t see it.

Service dog training standards are incredibly high and it can take up to two years to determine if a dog has the right skills and temperament for the job.

While Puppy Kindergarten graduates historically do well at the center, Woods said only 30% to 50% go on to become certified as adults and become working service dogs.

“Dogs that do this have a purpose,” he said. “They want to serve.”

This has led to an ongoing service dog shortage, and Woods and his team are looking to community members to fill the void.

Over the course of 18 months, participants will raise a Canine Companions dog as their own dog. About every two weeks, they will take the dogs to Duke’s Canine Cognition Center for testing. Woods and his team will collect data on the dogs’ abilities. At the end of the 18 months, volunteers will return the dogs to be placed for service dog training.

“We want people who will contribute to science,” Woods said.

Woods and Cusato hope their research will help them better predict the necessary characteristics of a good service dog, with the goal of getting more dogs through certification as adults.

While it may seem impossible to ask someone for a dog they’ve fostered for more than a year, Cusato and Woods want to convince potential volunteers how a fully trained service dog can change an owner’s life.

“Of course it’s hard to give up a dog you’ve raised for 18 months,” Woods said.

“I still cry every time,” Cusato said. “But I’m comforted to know that they’re going to give someone their freedom back.

For Woods and Cusato, it’s a chance for dog lovers to give back strongly to their communities. Volunteers have the opportunity to give someone back their independence, Woods said.

“It’s a gift you give,” Cusato said.

Interested volunteers can apply through the Canine Companions website at canine.org/get-involved.

While Maestro and his friends have a long way to go before they become service dogs, for now they will continue their studies and enjoy walking around Duke’s campus, bringing smiles to everyone they meet.

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