A Day In The Life Of A Susquehanna Service Dogs Trainer

On a typical day around campus, you probably see your fair share of four-legged friends walking around sporting a blue or purple training vest. They’re the stars of countless Snapchat stories and often spark a smile on the faces of Penn Staters missing their own pets at home. Their presence alone brightens your day, but these dogs are being trained to fulfill an even deeper purpose for a future owner. So what’s it like to actually be responsible for training one of these pups? It’s just as awesome as it seems.

For Katie Keith, a senior animal science major, there was no question she wanted to get involved with Susquehanna Service Dogs.

“I’ve always had a passion for animals and helping others,” Keith said. “Training a service dog allows me to do both of these.”

The SSD dogs at Penn State are part of the Roar For More program. The program currently has 14 dogs in training, and Keith serves as one of SSD’s student trainers. She currently trains SSD Cooper, a 1-year-old lab she’s cared for since he was only a couple months old.

Training Cooper is a 24/7 deal — In fact, the reason we see these puppies around campus so often is because they’re pretty much members of the Penn State community in their own unique way. They accompany their trainers during nearly every part of their daily routine.

“Cooper comes pretty much everywhere with me,” Keith said. “He comes to classes, clubs, play rehearsals, study sessions in the library, to the grocery store, hiking, and much more.”

(Photo: Katie Keith)
Photo: Katie Keith

To properly train Cooper, Keith must make sure every single aspect of his daily training routine is completed consistently. She practices specific cues with Cooper every day, at home or in public. With so many different commands to learn, Keith’s (and Cooper’s) daily schedule is undoubtedly packed.

“We practice more than 20 different commands, including stay, down, under, loose leash walking, focusing on me in public settings, heal, leave it, etc.” Keith said.

Keith gradually learned how to adapt to Cooper’s specific mannerisms and personality, but this necessity to adapt is one of the most difficult parts of being an SSD trainer. Training a new dog means implementing new strategies based on the behavior of that specific dog.

“Every single dog has different strengths and weaknesses,” Keith said. “Just because one dog listens really well or learns something fairly quickly doesn’t mean another one will.”

However, the reward that comes with being a trainer far outweighs any challenges. Training an animal allows the trainer to grow in ways he/she never would have before. Keith even feels she learns more about herself as a person each day because of the program.

“My favorite part about training a Susquehanna Service Dog is knowing that one day he may change someone’s life completely,” she said. “I also love that I’m learning every day just as Cooper is. I learn different training techniques, patience, compassion, selflessness, and dedication.”

The training process of each dog spans about 15-18 months. After they leave their first trainer, the dogs proceed to a new form of training before they’re finally paired with an owner. This final phase of training works on the exact job the dog will fulfill — working for the hearing impaired, serving as a companion dog for persons with disabilities, or taking on a role as a facility dog in a courtroom setting are just a few of the possibilities.

“These dogs can be taught a large range of things to aid those in need such as opening doors, retrieving important objects, [and] hitting handicap buttons to open doors,” Keith said.

Regardless of their future job, each dog trained undoubtedly makes a difference in the community around them. Whether it’s putting a smile on our faces around campus or playing the role of a life companion for someone else, the importance of SSD dogs cannot be overstated. For trainers like Keith, the impact these dogs have on the people around them is the ultimate reward for the work they do.

“I get to train Cooper and educate the public about service dogs all in the hopes that one day Cooper will be able to help someone that needs him.” 

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About the Author

Claire Fountas

Claire Fountas is the student life editor for Onward State, as well as a junior pursuing a double major in journalism and psychology. She lives in a suburb of Chicago and strongly disagrees with anyone who hates the Cubs or the Blackhawks (so, pretty much anyone at Penn State). You can follow her @ClaireFountas or email her at [email protected]

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