Assistance dog training comes to UW-River Falls

Published: Sep. 14, 2023 at 10:10 PM CDT
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RIVER FALLS, Wis. (WEAU) - A group of aspiring assistance dogs and a group of University of Wisconsin River Falls students will be teaching each other this semester.

Grace Johnson is excited to be a part of Fostering Education Through Campus Hosting, or FETCH. It’s a program from Can Do Canines that will pair her with Copper for the semester.

“He’s very pretty and I’m partial to big dogs, so I like that he’s a little bit bigger. He’s got his big old head,” said the companion animal management major. She is one of twenty students selected to train ten dogs.

For the majority of the semester, students will work in teams of two to trains dogs like Copper to become assistance dogs for those who need them later on.

“I think dogs are such a great tool for people who need it,” said Johnson.

“The ability to contribute to folks that do have disabilities that are going to be benefited from the dogs, it’s pretty rewarding to them to know that those dogs are going to have a life of help now,” said Dr. Chris Hergenrader, a companion animal management professor at UWRF.

He heard about FETCH being implemented at University of Minnesota Twin Cities and wanted to bring that hands on learning to River Falls.

“This is a wonderful university that has a developing companion animal program. We don’t have a farm to go to like the equine students, the dairy students. So we bring the animals to the students, is our goal here,” said Dr. Hergenrader.

“As being a college student, we still have to do our own classes, but simultaneously make sure that they’re learning what they need to learn. They’re going to be with us all the time,” said Johnson.

Emily Hedenland is the lead program trainer who said campuses will allow for high education for the dogs as well.

“There are lots of things that campus living will mimic for an assistant job. Same with the dorm living that will really mimic apartment living,” said Hedenland.

She also said it is sometimes saying bye to the assistance dogs in training, but worth it in the end.

“Seeing that first graduating class, where a dog that you had in your home and the difference that they make with the client. And it’s usually then that our students, or our puppy raisers, will say, ‘yes, this is why I do it,” said Hedenland.

The inaugural class of dogs will be succeeded by a new class of dogs next semester. Students are asked to commit to the school year, and will have priority if they choose to continue with FETCH if offered next school year.