Roar For More: Meet Penn State’s Service Dog Training Program
Roar For More started almost nine years ago with its very first litter arriving in August 2014. Nancy Dreschel, an associate teaching professor of animal science at Penn State, had established the relationship with Susquehanna Service Dogs (SSD), a part of Keystone Human Services that breeds, raises, trains, and places service dogs to provide a companion to those with disabilities.
Since 1993, Susquehanna Service Dogs has been partnering with community members and universities across Pennsylvania to raise service dogs, and Dreschel was the one who brought the organization to Penn State. She started Roar For More, a branch of Susquehanna Service Dogs, to give students the opportunity to raise puppies and learn more about service dogs.
Now at Penn State, litter after litter has gone through Roar For More training, and they’re just as adorable as you’d expect. Each litter is themed, so the “D” litter — the organization’s first — had pups whose names all started with the letter D. Other themed litters include the “Cheese”, “Sushi”, and “Under the Sea” litters.
One of program assistant Susan Lechtanski’s students was a raiser for the inaugural Roar For More litter at Penn State. A bunch of girls who were raising the “Cheese”-themed litter the following semester would often hang out in the HUB near Lechtanski’s office at the time.
“I was that annoying person, ‘Oh, can I pet your puppy?’ Yeah, I was that person,” Lechtanski said. “And finally one of the students said, ‘you know, you can do this too,’ and she handed me a card and I filled out the application and went through the training.”
She started off as a sitter, someone who would only have the puppy for a few days at a time so that its raiser would be able to go on vacation or to have some time away from those responsibilities of raising. Over a spring break, Lechtanski really understood how much work went into puppy raising and realized how much there was to learn. Dreschel offered for Lechtanski to go to classes to learn more.
“So, I started going to class. Six years later, here I am,” Lechtanski said.
Before Lechtanski got heavily involved with Roar For More, Dreschel managed the entire program. Now, the two of them work together to find raisers and encourage student interest. Dreschel teaches weekly classes that aim to develop skills for both the puppies and their raisers.
Roar For More is not exclusive to just students, though. Community members are also helping to raise service dogs for Susquehanna Service Dogs and attend these classes. Each class consists of about six puppies and their raisers, so the Roar For More family is tight-knit and makes for more hands-on learning experiences.
These classes that the puppies and their raisers attend vary in curriculum depending on the developmental age of the puppies. The youngest of the pups go to an Early Socialization class to work on house training, showing manners, and learning how to learn. The little ones have their first glimpse of clicker training, loose-leash walking, and basic cues such as sit, down, and stay. After the nine-week class, each puppy has to go through a review session with a Susquehanna Service Dogs representative to assess if they are ready to move on to the Purple Class. — a more advanced course for 6 to 12-month-old pups that factors in behavioral training.
“Instead of saying, ‘This is what you need to do,’ we kind of ease them into learning a new task,” Dreschel said. “That’s really important for when they get older. They might need to do all different kinds of things that we wouldn’t even predict but now that they have that foundation of knowing how to figure things out, they can be trained to do all kinds of things.”
The Green Class is for 12-to-18-month-old puppies. In this course, they learn new cues and reinforce everything else they’ve already worked on. A big cue they learn is targeting, in which they learn to follow a hand or some other object as a “target” so that the dog can touch it in a specific place. For example, Susquehanna Service Dogs uses targeting to be able to open the handicap door to the HUB.
After they finish their classes with Roar for More, the puppies move on to advanced training in Grantville, PA, which is SSD’s home base. Roar for More puppies will grow up to be hearing assistance dogs, mobility assistance dogs, K9 unit dogs, or even breeding dogs.
Susquehanna Service Dogs is accredited with Assistance Dogs International, along with more than 100 other organizations globally, including the Guide Dog Foundation (GDF), which also has a Penn State raiser. Susquehanna Service Dogs and the GDF are a part of Assistance Dogs International’s Breeding Cooperative, where the organizations are “breeding for the best qualities while maintaining genetic diversity,” Lechtanski said.
Professional trainers that work with Susquehanna Service Dogs evaluate the dogs to see what behaviors are enjoyable for them and what behaviors are not. In a way, the dogs pick their own careers.
“They do an amazing job of listening to the dog and what the dog is telling them, the dog wants to do,” Lechtanski said. “Some dogs don’t want to be a service dog, and that’s OK. The trainers listen to that and find other opportunities that the dogs will enjoy.”
“I think Penn State is an amazing environment to train these puppies because we have such a diverse environment everywhere,” Lechtanski continued.
Different living situations like an apartment downtown or in the dorms, meeting the squirrels on campus, walking over sidewalk grates, having bicycles and scooters speed by, experiencing construction, and even meeting larger farm animals are all experiences that Penn State can provide. These are all things that the puppies need to learn about and work on getting comfortable with while they are being raised.
“The university has been really understanding about having [the dogs] here,” Dreschel said.
Roar For More has been working with students, faculty, and the university to ensure that things go smoothly for student raisers. It does this by meeting with professors and discussing what having a service dog in training will be like in the classroom environment.
“The students that we’ve had have just been amazing,” Dreschel said. “I don’t really know how they do it, to tell you the truth. It’s a tremendous amount of work. The students tell us that their time management skills got better and ‘now I know what it’s like to be a parent,’ things like that.”
Balancing a full course load with raising an energetic puppy and teaching them new skills is no easy task, but Roar For More’s students have done an incredible job working with these dogs. The students who raise the puppies come from a wide range of majors, too. Some are in animal science or kinesiology and some are even in accounting or criminology. Those students who feel that raising and training fit into their career path can even raise for credit.
Raising these dogs may require a lot of work, but the payoff is huge. Knowing that these dogs will go on to completely change someone’s life is extremely rewarding.
“Sometimes, those dogs that were a handful when they were a puppy and made their raiser cry more than once. There they are, graciously walking across the stage at graduation. It’s like a proud mom moment,” Lechtanski said.
Graduation is also a great way for the raisers and dogs to connect with the new owners who were paired with the Susquehanna Service Dogs dogs.
Lechtanski recalled a dog from the “Cheese” litter who went on to become a balance dog. She was there to see the woman who was paired with the dog cross country ski for the first time.
“That made me cry,” Lechtanski said. “I knew how important those outdoor activities were to her and how she was no longer able to do those activities. Now that she had her dog, she was learning how to do these things over again.”
“It’s really neat to be able to meet people who are working with the dogs and see how the dogs have changed their lives,” Dreschel added.
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