Gone to the Dogs

Two students turn their love of dogs into a campus project to train service dogs for people with disabilities.

Sequoia is a 6-month-old golden retriever puppy, fluffy and slobbery and exuberant and generally adorable like 6-month-old golden retriever puppies are. If you lean over, he’ll lick your face enthusiastically, his tail wagging the entire backside of his frame, his snout and mouth opening into a sort of toothy smile through which his thick pink tongue hangs out. But right now he’s quiet, napping at Rachel Denton ’16’s feet under a conference room table. If you didn’t know he was there, you wouldn’t even notice him, which is exactly the point.

While Sequoia naps, Denton and Kara Russell ’16 are explaining why Sequoia’s presence on campus this year is so important—and the obstacles they had to overcome to get him here. “What I do,” Denton says, “is I train service dogs so that they know all they need to know about turning on lights and opening and closing doors and learning about the world, and from there they go off and [Sequoia’s] going to work for somebody in a wheelchair.”

The problem is that there are more people with disabilities who need service dogs than there are people willing to train the dogs to help them. “[This is] the perfect window of time for people to raise them because [college students] have time to do it,” Denton says.

Denton has been working with dogs—obsessing over dogs, really—for as long as she can remember. Last year, she and Russell—a fellow canine obsessive and science major—became friends. Denton had trained Samson, her personal pup, to be a therapy dog. Since 2009, she and Samson have visited nursing homes, rehab centers, children’s hospitals, and other facilities. On weekends, Denton trained service dogs in conjunction with New Horizons Service Dogs, a Central Florida nonprofit that provides service dogs to clients with disabilities primarily throughout the state of Florida.

The girls had an idea: What if students could train dogs on campus?

“The college environment is really perfect for service dogs because it teaches them about an office environment,” Denton says, “where their handler is most likely to work. It teaches [the dogs] self-control, so they have to sit and be quiet in class, and then they can go into the dining hall and learn about not sniffing food and things like that. Then there are stores on campus and Park Avenue. It really works very well. It’s a great partnership.”

That partnership almost never got off the ground.

Several months ago, Russell typed up a 2,000-word letter to College officials asking for a chance for SIT Rollins, as they’d dubbed their organization (short for Service Independence Training, it was Russell’s Leadership Ally Program), to make a formal presentation on their goal to “promote awareness for people with disabilities, engage in meaningful service projects, and to impact and engage the Rollins campus and community. … The dogs’ presence on campus also benefits Rollins. The [dog] raiser will educate students about individuals with disabilities and about the etiquette regarding service dogs.”

Russell’s proposal was at times legalistic: She cited the Americans with Disabilities Act and Florida law, which grants service dogs in training the same rights and privileges as any other service dog. The College’s disability policy “allows a service dog in training, as, by law, the service dog in training is legally a service dog and the handler is legally a disabled individual.”

They wanted a dog-friendly double room on campus for Denton and her full-time training dog—Sequoia, the dog she’s been working with since May—which she would share with another SIT board member. Denton would be the first trainer on campus, though in time there might be a few others.

They turned in their proposal and waited for a response. For a month, they heard nothing. And then they were told, rather bluntly, “it wouldn’t happen,” Russell says. “That was the most heart-breaking day.” There were concerns about pet waste, about the dogs being disruptive or distracting, about students’ allergies and phobias, about the potential for dozens of students deciding to become dog trainers.

But they kept trying. They scored a meeting with President Lewis Duncan. They made lists of supportive students and faculty. They rehearsed their presentation. In the end, Duncan signed off, and starting this semester, you may well see Denton and Sequoia walking around campus together.

“I think one of our main goals is to make sure that this lasts long after we leave,” Russell says.

“We’d kind of like it to be our legacy on campus,” Denton says.

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