Service dog program welcomes new class of puppies

Kate Jamison and Emma Discher, Print News Editor and Senior Staff Reporter

She wakes up at 6:30 a.m., goes for a walk around campus, does some training exercises, sleeps for 16-18 hours a day, and in 18 months she will leave Tulane — but she’s not a student.

She’s a 10-week-old service dog named Ava. 

A golden retriever and yellow lab mix, Ava is a new addition to Tulane’s campus and as part of the Tulane University Service-Dog Training and Education Program, junior Leslie Howton will raise and train her for the next 18 months. 

Founder of TUSTEP and junior Adam Kline began training Tulane’s first service dog named Kipper last fall, and he is set to graduate soon from Tulane’s campus to continue his training. 

While Howton has been involved with TUSTEP in the past, she never considered this opportunity until she heard that the executive board of TUSTEP was interviewing students to raise service dogs this fall. 

Howton interviewed for the program last semester through TUSTEP and Canine Companions for Independence, TUSTEP’s national partner. Both organizations accepted Howton’s application, and the puppy arrived at Howton’s off-campus residence two weeks ago.

Howton does three to four training sessions daily with Ava, in addition to taking her on walks, feeding her and taking care of her. She is training Ava to recognize 30 different commands during the next year and a half.

Howton is already seeing rewards from the training, though. 

“[The best part has been] the feeling that I get whenever she learns something new,” Howton said. “The other night we went on a walk, and we passed a cat. She didn’t even bat an eye. I get a sense of pride to see that she’s really catching on.”

Balancing life as a full-time student and a service-dog trainer is not easy, Howton said. 

“I actually babysit for a professor, and her kid was easier [to take care of] than the puppy,” Howton said. “Aside from getting up early and going to bed early, daily life with Ava is a balance between doing homework and trying not to have my furniture chewed up.”

Howton manages to squeeze in homework hours while Ava is sleeping. 

“This week was a little bit crazy because I have a test this week and a paper due [Thursday], but puppies sleep 16-18 hours a day,” Howton said. “That helps.”

Ava will train with Howton until February 2016. At that time, Ava will go back to CCI to learn more specialized commands such as opening doors, turning on lights and pushing wheelchairs.  

Kipper’s exams will likely occur in February, and CCI will evaluate Kline’s service dog commands at a regional training center in Orlando, Florida.

If he passes his exams, Kipper will continue training in Orlando until he knows 25 additional commands, works through team training and is eventually placed with a disabled person. There is no guarantee that Kipper will be placed, however.  

“The odds are pretty good that if he goes through all the training then he will be [placed],” Kline said. “If there is someone that he really fits with, that really likes him, that has a connection, that works well together, and he listens to them very well, then they keep training [together.]”

Kline has spent months training Kipper and is hopeful to see how his hard work will pay off.  

“I’ve always been nervous about his tests in particular since he was the first service dog and there was obviously a lot of conflict surrounding the first service dog on campus having him in Aron [Residences],” Kline said. “I definitely have always felt like I’ve had something to prove with him, but I think he’s doing fine. I’ve gotten compliments from a few advanced trainers about how well he’s doing, and that really means a lot.” 

The executive board of TUSTEP has worked this semester to expand its work beyond service dogs. It has partnered with an animal shelter in Jackson, Louisiana to help adopt out the shelter’s dogs. Kline said that on Sept. 28 from noon to 3 p.m. the staff from the shelter will visit the Hillel Green Wave Community Market.

“We want to bring about 10 of the dogs out here in case there are any students or [community members who are interested],” Kline said.

Kline said the dogs are highly trained because they are raised in a prison. 

“It’s an animal shelter inside of the prison where the inmates take care of the dogs and train them a little bit,” Kline said. “All of that one-on-one contact really produces great, well-mannered dogs, but they have a low adoption rate since they’re far out in the country.” 

Beyond working with the shelter in Jackson, training service dogs and holding events throughout the semester, TUSTEP involves additional students through puppy sitting. 

“We still have a ton of people who are puppy sitters willing to take care of the service dogs, which is great because we always need them,” Kline said. 

Though Kipper will leave soon, Ava is not the only new service dog on campus. Her brother Archer and another service dog named Dane also arrived this semester, and another puppy will arrive in January.