Ut Prosim plus puppies: Veterinary student raises a service dog
November 7, 2023
"I will never forget the day I went up to New York for the graduation of my first dog. I still watch the videos and get chills,” said Kelsey Thornton, Class of 2025 at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.
At the Canine Companions for Independence graduation ceremony, puppy raisers like Thornton are able to reunite with the service dogs after months of professional training and hand over their leash to their new handlers.
For Thornton, the reunion meant a lot of happy tears.
“From the end of the hallway, he knew who I was, he recognized me. He ran so fast his little paws couldn't get traction on the floor,” she said.
“But after I saw him have that same reaction to his new person, I was just filled with relief and joy that he was fulfilling his purpose and would live a long life working and helping someone."
Thornton raised her first puppy as an undergraduate and her second while she was in veterinary school. In August, Thornton attended the graduation ceremony for the second puppy she raised.
“It's important for people, especially here in the veterinary community, to see what a service dog is, what they look like when they're working, and develop service dog etiquette.”
"I didn't think I was going to be able to raise again in vet school, but honestly, I loved raising him while I was here because I could bring him on campus,” Thornton said. “We vet students work long hours studying and attending classes, which can lead to burnout really quickly, but this always gave me something to look forward to — it gets you out of bed in the morning. It would help me take study breaks because I would take him out in public and get him out around people.”
“It's important for people, especially here in the veterinary community, to see what a service dog is, what they look like when they're working, and develop service dog etiquette,” Thornton said.
One important piece of service dog etiquette is not to touch or distract dogs while they’re working — service dogs can be very cute, but they also have an important job to do. Because of the unique partnership between a service dog and its handler, it’s crucial that future veterinarians learn about treating service dogs and their unique needs.
“When people with service dogs come into us for care, we need to recognize that that animal is really vital to them, and how we can help them,” Thornton said.
Canine Companions’ puppy raisers receive their puppies when they are around eight weeks of age, and the puppies stay for 16-18 months. During this time, the puppy raisers are responsible for getting their puppies socialized, teaching them 40 different commands, and taking them to bimonthly classes. The training experience has given Thornton skills she will put into practice as a veterinarian.
“I learned a lot about canine behavior, and that I can apply to my clients every day. I think I have a lot to offer my clients if they have questions about behavior,” said Thornton.
The next step is “puppy college,” where the dogs receive six to nine months of professional training and evaluation at regional headquarters.
"Every command we teach them as puppy-raisers, they advance those skills and apply them to more challenging skills such as opening doors, getting things out of the fridge, and handing over credit cards at the grocery store,” said Thornton.
Raising service dogs gave Thornton a unique way to give back. Some organizations charge recipients tens of thousands of dollars for their dogs, but Canine Companions, which is in need of more volunteer puppy raisers, doesn’t charge a cent. Veterinary students have the opportunity to complete a rotation with Saint Francis Service Dogs in Roanoke, another organization that offers service dogs free of charge.
Many Hokies are already familiar with service dog programs' great work — Virginia Tech's beloved therapy dogs, Derek, Epcot, and Josie, all come from service dog backgrounds and have found new careers with Cook Counseling Center's Animal Assisted Therapy program. In addition to hundreds of events, the therapy dogs are present for about 1,000 therapy sessions a year, and their service dog trainings make sure that they're up for the challenge of working full time in a busy university setting.
Thornton says that the people are one of the most rewarding things about being a puppy raiser. Not only has she learned more about the disability community, but she has met countless people all over the country who are passionate about dogs and helping people.
“It takes a village to raise a puppy.”