Service dog Hollywood is the first recipient of an honorary “dogorate” degree from Rollins College.
Rollins Disability Service Coordinator Jon Viera ’16MHR and his service dog, Hollywood. (Photo by Scott Cook)
It isn’t common to see a dog at a graduation ceremony. But then again, Hollywood isn’t a common dog.
The 4-year-old golden retriever is a service dog who belongs to Rollins Disability Service Coordinator Jon Viera ’16MHR.
And on May 7, when Viera was presented with a master’s degree in human resources at the Hamilton Holt School’s 2016 commencement ceremony, Hollywood received a degree of her own. It was the first time Rollins has conferred an honorary “dogorate” degree to commemorate extraordinary service to a student.
The day was full of celebration, but Viera and Hollywood’s journey at Rollins might not have happened if it weren’t for a conversation he had with undergraduate student Rachel Denton ’16 a couple of years ago in the Office of Disability Services.
Hollywood and her honorary dogorate degree. (Photo by Scott Cook)
Denton had recently started the student organization SIT (short for Service Independence Training) in partnership with New Horizons Service Dogs, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the expert training and matching of service dogs with people who have disabilities. She initially met with Viera to talk about student awareness of service dogs’ access rights on campus, but the conversation’s focus shifted to Viera himself.
“I mentioned I always wanted a service dog and she asked why I didn’t have one,” Viera recalls. “I told her I always figure things out. But she asked what I tell the students, and I said that I always tell them to do whatever is possible to be independent. And she asked, ‘well, why aren’t you?’”
Viera, who uses a wheelchair, researched more than 30 service dog organizations and eventually decided to partner with New Horizons.
“I like how they matched up service dogs with people,” Viera says. “The dog itself is free, even though it takes two years and $25,000 for them to raise it.”
New Horizons had raised Hollywood from puppyhood to serve as an alert dog for a person with a hearing impairment. But because she was also skilled at mobility assistance and had a temperament that could work well with Jon’s family and daily life, she was the first dog the program director decided to try out. It was a match.
“There were three or four dogs that could have been a potential match,” Viera says. “But Hollywood took to my side and that was the end of it. We’ve literally never been apart since.”
While Jon’s plans to work and complete a master’s degree at Rollins didn’t originally include a service dog, he knows now that Hollywood’s presence and support have been life-changing.
“She opens and closes doors, presses elevator buttons—she’s my hands,” Jon says. “And I’ve learned so much about the importance of having confidence from this dog. She’s fearless.”
To learn more about ways Rollins can help remove barriers for students with disabilities, visit rollins.edu/disability-services.
(Photo by Scott Cook)