Service dogs in training are a common sight on campus, found in the library, in lecture halls, and even on PVTA buses, thanks to a partnership with Diggity Dogs Service Dogs Inc. Diggity Dogs is a psychiatric and medical service-dog training organization based in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. They connect with UMass students, who volunteer to foster and train the dogs until they are ready to be placed with a client. The program is no walk in the park; student trainers are responsible for the dogs’ feeding and care and enroll in a weekly, three-credit, service-dog training course.
Lindsey Cloutier, a junior pre-vet major, is currently training her second dog, Makiah, a black Labrador. She first heard about Diggity Dogs through the Animal Sciences RAP (Residential Academic Program) her freshman year. She is now one of the most experienced volunteers and serves as a TA in classes for new trainers and their dogs.
“Training classes meet once a week, divided by the level of the dog. We call them puppy, intermediate, and advanced,” says Cloutier.
As a TA, she also meets with fellow students outside of class time to work on individual skills. Many of the trainers come from the pre-vet department, but psychology, public health, and management majors participate as well.
Student trainers are aware of challenges that arise from having dogs in the classroom. They keep dogs away from people with allergies and avoid interruptions whenever possible. “We are never trying to cause a commotion. If the dogs are doing anything disruptive to the teacher or the people around them, we will remove them and come back in only if we deem that they are ready,” says Cloutier. Trainers know that they are doing well when a class ends and classmates are surprised to see the dogs sitting right next to them in a lecture hall.
UMass students are often so excited to see puppies on campus that they forget they are in training.
People often approach the dogs and take photos or pet them without realizing they may be interfering with training. Both Norton and Cloutier encourage the campus community to think twice and be respectful. While they are still in training, the puppies are treated as if they are with a client, and interruptions to the puppies can cause trauma for their owner.
Service-dog trainers learn to be constantly on alert for other dogs and squirrels that may grab the attention of their puppies. Outside of the library, a small yellow Lab walks by and Mimzy and Makiah jerk up. Cloutier says, “leave it” as both dogs begin to settle down. They retreat to their seated positions and Cloutier rewards them with a pat and another small treat.
The dogs work hard throughout the day, but trainers ensure that they are given time to just be puppies. “We let them play with toys and learn how to relax; many of their clients won’t be able to keep up with constant exercise,” says Cloutier.
Parting at the end of the training period is difficult for both the dogs and their trainers. Cloutier and Norton proudly display silver necklaces bearing the names of their graduated dogs, which they wear almost every day. As pre-vet majors, it is likely that they will take the skills that they learned through Diggity Dogs far beyond graduation. “It is a huge part of our lives, and so much fun to train. I can’t imagine not training dogs now. It is amazing to watch them finally get the skills,” says Norton.
—By Ali Ziomek ’18