So, you’ve seen the puppy on campus

Katie Ribbens— Staff Writer 

You’ve probably seen a fluffy, adorable puppy jaunting across campus recently. Maybe she’s even carrying a stick in her mouth or doing all sorts of cute tilt-a-whirls. What do you do? Well, that depends. 

Sierra is my service dog in training, and I’m raising her for Partners for Patriots. They’re a nonprofit in Anthon, Iowa, about an hour from campus. Partners for Patriots pair service dogs with disabled veterans–free of charge. As a future service dog, Sierra has certain rules that she–and students–must follow. 

First, a few details about the pup superstar herself. She is a four-month-old mini f1b Bernedoodle, meaning she is 75 percent poodle and 25 percent Bernese Mountain dog. A breeder in Idaho donated her at 8 weeks old and I’ve been training her ever since. 

I’m Katie, by the way, the person at the other end of the leash. It’s totally okay if you knew my dog’s name and not mine. Honestly, if I were in your shoes, I would be the same. 

I’m a puppy raiser for Partners for Patriots and am working toward my dog training certification so I can train additional service dogs. My job is to raise and train Sierra through the first year of her life, then give her back to Partners for more advanced training. I expose her to anything she may encounter in her future role as a service dog and work to form positive associations with these situations so she will be confident wherever she and her veteran go. I also do obedience training, public access training, and some early task training. 

Public access training refers to any training where service dog enters a public space where others dogs are not allowed. For Sierra, this includes attending class with me, running errands, or going to restaurants. 

Task training is what makes a service dog a service dog. They are the behaviors the dog uses to help their handler. Sierra’s veteran will likely have PTSD and may also have some visual, auditory, and mobility impairments. She is trained to handle anxiety that may be caused by a flashback by jumping up and licking her handler. This tactile stimulation grounds the handler in the present and interrupts their episode.

 Sierra is also trained in deep pressure therapy, during which she lays across her handler. Her warmth and weight ground her handler in the present and provide a very calming effect. She also retrieves items, such as medication or her service vest. 

I will continue to build on her tasks as she develops. However, most of her tasks will be trained after she is paired with her veteran. A service dog is essentially a custom medical device, so after Partners knows her veteran’s needs, they will train the tasks that will be most helpful. If the veteran is losing their hearing, for example, she will train to alert them to the doorbell. The veteran will also undergo training with her so they know how to best utilize her skills.

Believe me, I love every moment training Sierra, but it has taken some serious sacrifice. Sleeping in? Free time? Both things of the past. Her care comes before my own. Even so, I would not have it any other way. 

I’ve heard enough of the same questions come up, so I’d like to address some of them below. 

How did you get permission to have a dog live with you on campus?

I have been meeting with Partners for Patriots and Dordt faculty since March 2020. It has been a long, thought-out process, and I am grateful to see it come to fruition this year. A campus is such perfect training grounds for a service dog since there are so many opportunities for exposure and socialization. 

What is the proper service dog etiquette?

When you see Sierra on campus with her vest on, you have to ignore her. I know how hard that is—she’s adorable—but someday, someone is going to depend on her to do her job. She will give them the freedom to live their life again. Twenty-two veterans with PTSD commit suicide every day, so she could very well be saving their life. When her vest is off, it means she is off-duty, and we’d love to meet you. You can give her all the pets you’ve been saving up! I promise both of us are friendly and I love nothing more than chatting about our mission. So just remember, you might be making a small sacrifice by ignoring the incredibly cute puppy, but her veteran made a huge sacrifice to serve. This is our way of giving back! 

I want to get involved. What should I do?

The easiest way to get involved is by joining the Dordt University Assistance Animal Club. The goal of the club is to raise awareness for and erase the stigma surrounding people that require a service animal. You will have opportunities to get hands-on experience training Sierra and volunteer at Partners for Patriots. Find us on our Instagram page: @du_assistanceanimalclub or email ktrbbns19@dordt.edu

What is the difference between a service animal, an emotional support animal, and a therapy animal?

A service animal is specifically trained to assist one person and is given special access to accompany their handler wherever they go. Examples of service dogs are guide dogs, diabetic-alert dogs, and psychiatric service dogs. An emotional support animal also assists one person, but they may not be task trained and have fewer access rights. A therapy animal receives training to help a group of people but does not have access rights. They can be found visiting hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and more. 

How will you give her up in a year?

Believe me, I am so attached to this dog that my heart hurts when I think of giving her up at the end of the school year. The day I brought her home, I worried that I had made a terrible mistake–I’d never be able to part with her. But I know someone else needs her so much more than I do. And that’s what I tell myself (and her) every single day. Plus, I hope to train a new puppy after her, which means one more veteran will get his new life-saving partner. 

How did I get involved in this?

It all started right here, at The Diamond. While I knew before I went to Dordt that I wanted to find a way to work with animals during my time here, it took some serious research to find a feasible way to do so. I wrote an article that opened the door to my involvement with Partners back in March 2020. I then wrote a series of articles last year interviewing veterans, the founder and head trainer, vice president, and puppy raisers from Partners. 

I want to get involved. What should I do?

The easiest way to get involved is by joining the Dordt University Assistance Animal Club. The goal of the club is to raise awareness for and erase the stigma surrounding people that require a service animal. You will have opportunities to get hands-on experience training Sierra and volunteer at Partners for Patriots. Find us on our Instagram page: @du_assistanceanimalclub or email ktrbbns19@dordt.edu

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