Katie Ribbens—Staff Writer
People have been using animals to help one another for centuries. Now, service dogs are becoming more and more popular. Sioux Center News recently featured local vet Kelly Johnson and her work with Major, a yellow lab puppy. She is conducting basic training exercises with him to prepare him for his future service. When he’s ready, he’ll be donated to Partners for Patriots, a nonprofit in Anthon, IA, that pairs service dogs with disabled veterans.
But are there any opportunities for Dordt students to partake in this journey? The student handbook classifies service animals as “an animal that is trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.” The handbook also allocates that the two recognized service animals are dogs and miniature horses. It permits service animals on campus and allows them to “accompany the student in most aspects of campus life, with limited restrictions.” However, the handbook is vague as to whether service animals in training are allowed the same benefits. The dean of students was not able to be reached for an interview to clear things up.
Psychology student Abi Schescke hopes to train a service dog in the future. She sees it as a valuable learning experience and a means to apply what she’s been taught in her classes. The use of operant conditioning to increase or decrease behavior is a key component in training animals and is foundational to psychology. Reinforcers often take the form of rewards, such as praise or treats. Punishment is a typical means of decreasing behavior, but it can come in a form as simple as ignoring bad behavior.
“It’s like clicker training,” Schescke said. “So, you would condition the dog to do a certain behavior.”
Clicker training is a common form of positive reinforcement, in which the sound of the clicker is paired with the desired behavior, known as a bridge signal. A reward is given, so the dog knows the behavior the trainer wishes to be repeated.
When asked how training a service dog fits into Dordt’s mission, Schescke said, “It’s a cool and creative way to impact not only people as part of God’s creation, but also animals. I think when we have that outlet to train a service dog, it can be a really powerful way of coming alongside people that are experiencing brokenness and helping to redeem and correct that.” Since these dogs will be used to aid veterans, it is also a way to serve our country.
Additionally, Schescke will serve at Dordt as an RA next year. She believes having a dog will help her in that venture as well.
“As an RA, I think it would be a great way to draw more people in,” Schescke said. “You can use that as a mean to build more community, and then in turn support people even more.”
Schescke has considered some potential drawbacks of having a dog with her in the dorm. The top one she listed was the difficult of caring for a dog through the Midwest winters.
“But the benefits would greatly outweigh the negatives,” Schescke said. “I think if a student is responsible enough and motivated enough to take on extra volunteer work outside of their already rigorous academics, then that should be allowed.”
Only time will tell if this fantasy will become a reality. All that’s needed are a few trailblazers.