As much as we need dogs to help us learn and make sense of the world, there are those who, quite literally, require these animals to guide them through life. For those people, there is 4 Paws for Ability, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to place quality service dogs with children and veterans with disabilities, as well as to educate the public regarding use of service dogs in public places.
What you may not know is that University of Findlay has a chapter of the organization, and that, if it weren’t for UF senior Rachael Quandt and her heart for animals of every kind, it may not have ever come to fruition on campus.
As a high school senior, Quandt, originally from the Cleveland area, was, at the time, visiting colleges and really liked University of Findlay for its animal science/pre-veterinary program. Luckily for the University, the campus and all that it represents appealed to Quandt in such a way that she decided to become an Oiler, and she soon after found herself on the UF campus as a freshman.
Part of the required curriculum for students at UF is composition classes where predominantly first-year students write various essays to learn the art of written communication, and Quandt’s class was tasked with writing a proposal as part of a group writing assignment. “We discussed subjects as a group, and I suggested that we write about getting a 4 Paws affiliation at UF,” she said. “I had been doing research on it already, and, luckily, the group agreed so that’s what we did it on.” The proposal, and Quandt’s subsequent feelings about it, were a success, so she and a classmate, Caroline Christoff, helped each other with the required regulations through UF’s student government association to get the club started. She went through 4 Paws for Ability’s application process to become a primary volunteer trainer, along with that of training to be a handler, and got approved to be a volunteer. Thusly, the UF 4 Paws affiliation was born.
Quandt is now the president of the UF chapter of 4 Paws for Ability, whose original and main location for breeding and training the dogs is in Xenia, Ohio. She explained that, while when the program started here at UF there was only one dog, there are now a total of six being fostered by her and other 4 Paws fosters. The current furry friend under her specific care and guidance is Yamaha, a Golden Retriever with a spunky and intelligent disposition – one that is perfect for her role as a service-dog-in-training.
The goal, Quandt said, is to create in the dogs the most social and accepting personalities possible; in order to do this, they live with their fosters and are taken everywhere and anywhere they can think of to assimilate them to everything that goes on in the world. “If you think about it, the world can definitely be a scary place for dogs,” Quandt said, referring to the myriad of sensory triggers that abound. Handlers take their dogs on elevators, into grocery stores and around the carts, to schools, to nursing homes, to the UF barns and other animals; during the Halloween season, Quandt took Yamaha to the pop-up Halloween store in town to expose her to the motion activated animatronics and the brightly colored costumes that can certainly be jarring if the animals aren’t prepared. “Different situations depend on needs and stages, and there are so many,” Quandt said. “We mostly try to look for experiences and make them positive. It’s all about gaining confidence.” At the time when the fosters have them, there is no specific idea about where or with whom the dogs will end up permanently. They have to be ready to work with wheelchairs, to walk slowly beside those who use canes and/or walkers, and to be obedient and receptive to commands while doing so. One of the advantages of having the club on the UF campus, Quandt added, is that the dogs can be taken into classes to show them, among other commands, how to lay down and out of the way in a classroom setting.
As much as the training is important for the dogs, an equal, if not larger objective for the 4 Paws handlers and fosters is to educate the public about what is expected of the animals. A frequent opportunity for this, according to Quandt, comes in informing people of the difference between the types of jobs the animals do. There is quite a difference between service dogs, therapy dogs, and emotional support dogs, Quandt explained. Service dogs are task trained for a disability; therapy dogs are known more for being in hospitals and treatment centers to provide comfort and assistance; and emotional support dogs provide therapeutic support and reassurance to those with a mental impairment, disability, or ailment. “It’s challenging for people, because they usually just know the first word they learned or heard,” Quandt said, “so if that word was ‘therapy dog,’ that’s what they use for any dog they see working in public. There really is a big difference, though.” That difference, she added, also extends toward the way they should be approached or treated by strangers. “People need to be aware that these dogs, especially service dogs, are working dogs, meaning they’re doing a job, so it’s best to ask first – every time – if it’s okay to pet them so they’re not distracted,” she added.
The 4 Paws organization employs evaluations to determine when the dogs are ready to move on to “advanced training” based on need. At that point, they go back to Xenia where they are trained further and more specifically for their permanent mission. It’s a bittersweet period for handlers like Quandt to see “their” dog leave their side to go on to do what they’re trained to do. The bond becomes particularly strong between dog and foster, but the payoff of seeing them find success with their “forever” person is far greater than any sadness they experience, and often, there are unforeseen perks as well. Quandt told a story of the second dog she worked with named Bali, a dog she quarantined with during the early days of the pandemic, and one that was called back for advanced training last summer. “He got matched with his boy Aaron as a mobility-assistance service dog, and they graduated from the program together in October of last year,” Quandt explained. “What we found out, though, is that Aaron’s grandmother is a UF alum, so that was a huge coincidence; both Bali and Grandma were grads of UF. That was pretty cool.”
Quandt graduates in May from the animal science/pre-vet program at UF, however, the club will continue at UF as it is preparing to elect new officers in the coming weeks. Quandt knows it’s in good hands and will only continue to grow, and anyone who has spent time with one of these intelligent and loveable animals knows that there will always to be a lot to be thankful for from our canine brethren.
Bestselling author Nora Roberts is quoted as saying that everything she knows, she learned from dogs, and it’s no different for Quandt. She’s not sure what is next on the horizon for her, but she knows it will involve animals, and likely more dogs. “I’ve always been one to volunteer,” she said. “4 Paws for Ability aligned with my core values, and it absolutely changed me as a person. Working with the dogs teaches you so much about them and even more about yourself.”