Inspiring independence

October 13, 2008

Sophomore Abigail Vickers knows a thing or two about puppy love.

She also knows the power of a pooch to help a disabled person gain a greater sense of self-sufficiency.

That knowledge prompted her to organize a group of McDaniel College students to work with Canine Companions for Independence, a national nonprofit organization of volunteers who train assistance dogs. McDaniel's is the only college-based group associated with the organization.

“I had raised two assistance dogs at home and when I came to school, I felt like something was missing,” said Vickers, who is majoring in Biology with a focus on pre-medicine.

“I also thought it would be a good way to get other people involved,” she said, adding that there is a shortage of puppy raisers.

So, Vickers spent the better part of last year persuading school administrators to allow her to start the chapter – which has since grown, largely by word-of-mouth, to nearly 60 members – and to give the group access to affinity housing so it could raise a puppy on campus.

This semester, with the help of six other McDaniel students – three sophomores and three seniors – Vickers’ chapter is raising Kaya, a golden retriever and Labrador mix. The women can often be spotted on campus walking Kaya.

The McDaniel chapter is based in one of the college-owned houses along Pennsylvania Avenue.

As puppy raisers, the women are responsible for Kaya for up to 18 months, at which point she is expected to enter a more advanced-stage of training that would be coordinated by the national group.

While they have her at McDaniel, the women are expected to train Kaya in basic obedience, such as teaching her how to do such things as sit, wait, and how to extend her paw (a motion that is a precursor to learning more advanced commands such as helping a disabled person open a door).

In addition to training Kaya, the group is responsible for all of her medical and housing expenses. Vickers said the group is considering ways to raise money to help defray those costs. The group is allowed to accept private donations, which can be tax-deductible, she said.

The women living in the group’s affinity housing fondly refer to Kaya’s playfulness, but acknowledge it has made training her more challenging.

And they confess to feeling a bit like parents on most days, including meticulously charting Kaya’s walking and feeding schedules as well as arranging training and veterinary visits.

One of the students helping to raise Kaya is Leisl Parrish ‘11, a Psychology major.

“She needs one-on-one attention, 24/7,” Parrish said. “But doing this makes me feel like I’m actually doing something to help people in need, who physically can’t do for themselves.”

The demands of raising and training Kaya have also drawn the housemates closer, Vickers said.

“It’s very time-consuming,” Vickers said. “But it’s really fun to have the dog here, and it brings the house together. It has helped to create a sense of community.”

Based in Santa Rosa, Calif., Canine Companions for Independence was founded in 1975. According to its website, the group’s volunteers train assistance dogs in the following areas: to help physically disabled adults perform daily tasks; to alert the deaf and hard of hearing to important sounds; to assist children and adults with physical, cognitive and developmental disabilities; and to work with a professional in a visitation, education or healthcare setting.

Vickers said it is never easy to part with a dog she has trained, but she comforts herself with the knowledge that the dog will go on to help someone who is in need.

She knows, for example, that one of the dogs she trained before coming to McDaniel was eventually assigned to a 30-year-old Pennsylvania man who has degenerative nerve disease and requires help getting into a wheelchair.

“I do get attached, but I tell people this dog has something greater to go and do,” Vickers said. “It’s kind of like sending your kid off to college.”