Service dog is Tulane student’s pet project

Canine Kipper is like an American Express card. Adam Kline, his human, never leaves home without him.

That’s because Tulane University student Kline is a puppy trainer, and 7-month-old Kipper is a service dog in training. A 24/7 connection is required for their shared mission.

Last spring Kline, a public health and pre-med major, founded the Tulane Service-Dog Training and Education Program. The program works in conjunction with the Canine Companions for Independence organization, as well as with Dixon Correctional Institute in East Feliciana Parish, raising puppies to become service dogs.

“We teach the dogs 31 one-word commands, potty training, social skills and house behavior,” said Kline, the golden retriever resting at his side at a PJ’s coffee house on campus.

“May I pet him?” said an all-smiles co-ed as she approached. Sydney Satre knows Kipper, and she knows the drill: a service-dog-in-training has work to do and a protocol to follow. Satre is a puppy-sitter in Kline’s program.

Kipper is one of two service dogs the student organization has secured for their ongoing training, and he is the first dog Kline has trained. The other is a black lab named Pindell, who is being trained by another member of TUSTEP.

After 12 to 18 months the pups that have completed their basic training will go on to more advanced training as an assistance dog, learning such tasks as opening doors, fetching keys or perhaps serving as an alarm dog for the hearing-impaired or an extra pair of hands for someone with physical limitations. They are even used in the criminal justice system as facility dogs to be at the side of a child victim when the minor is asked to testify in court.

Under the CCI guidelines, assistance dogs fall into four categories: service (assisting adult with physical disabilities by performing daily tasks), hearing (alerting the hearing-impaired to important sounds), skilled companions (providing independence for those with physical, cognitive and developmental disabilities) and facility (working with a professional in a visitation, education or healthcare setting).

The career of a service dog is far-reaching, but it starts with simple commands.

“Stand,” said Kline, and Kipper is up on all fours from a resting position at his trainer’s side. “Up” is the next command. Kipper gently jumps up, both paws resting on the table to show how making a financial transaction is not beyond canine capabilities.

“He learns to retrieve his handler’s wallet, put his paws on the counter with the wallet in his mouth, drop it for the store clerk to secure payment, and when the clerk returns the wallet, Kipper will put it back in a pocket on his handler’s wheelchair,” said Kline. “We teach the puppies these basic commands, and the professionals who teach the advanced training make it practical.”

“Release,” said Kline. Kipper goes into relaxation mode.

Lest any dog-lover think a service pup’s life is all work and no play, Kline is quick to point out that a service dog is not without time to romp.

“When Kipper is wearing his cape, (the official blue and yellow halter of a service dog), he knows he is on duty. But when the cape and the Gentle Leader (harness and leash) come off, Kipper can be ‘a normal dog,’” said Kline.

The year-old volunteer organization is advertised at campus activity fairs, and Kline maintains a Facebook page.

“The first meeting was packed. All the seats were taken,” said Satre, a student who had grown up with rescue dogs and foster dogs and was naturally drawn to become one of the organization’s charter members.

Initially, about 25 students showed up in the spring of 2013.

By fall, that number had increased to about 100 interested students, but the solid number has dwindled down to about 50 puppy sitters. The commitment level culls out the less serious.

“I wanted to give students a chance to get more involved in a community service experience, one they would enjoy and one that would impact the future of their service life,” said Kline, who saw a similar program at the University of Kentucky in his hometown of Lexington prior to his enrollment at Tulane.

LeAnn Siefferman, puppy program manager for the Southeast Region of Canine Companions, said recruiting college students to become volunteer puppy raisers is a big interest of the organization’s.

“It opens up Canine Companions to a whole new demographic,” she said. “The primary responsibility of our puppy raisers is socializing them and getting them used to different environments. We know that college students can provide great socialization opportunities for our dogs.”Kline could see students were a good fit for training service dogs.

“Kipper is calm in all social situations now. People can bring dogs to work, but that is just one environment for eight hours. Following me around as a student, Kipper goes with me to a ton of different places (classes, meetings, social gatherings, grocery stores, training venues). He doesn’t spend a lot of time alone in the apartment; he is out and about,” said Kline. “He loves working. That’s one of the qualities they look for in a service dog.”

But Kipper isn’t the only one to reap benefits from the training program. Kline spends many weekends at the Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson, learning not only the skills the inmates who train service dogs provide for his campus program, but also witnessing the impact the training program has had on the inmates. Kline has a one-word assessment — “awesome.”

The day will come when Kline must say goodbye to Kipper, so that the canine can continue his education just as Kline will continue his. This parting will be the first for both.

“It will be hard to let him go. I’m sure of that,” said Kline. But the Tulane student is training himself to know that he will be providing someone else with a tail-wagging source of devotion and independence.