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College students training service dogs for vets, autistic children

WAVERLY, Iowa --- As professor Susan Vallem lectured on military culture at Wartburg College on Tuesday, seven of her pupils inadvertently stole the show.

The wet-nosed, kind-eyed canine service dogs in training perched on carpeted stools at the front of the classroom. Impressively, most held the pose, with some exceptions, for a good half-hour.

George, a yellow Labrador retriever, appeared interested in the projection screen. Murphy, another yellow Lab, repeatedly questioned the definition of "stay." Zeke, a rust-colored, golden retriever, caught a nap.

"Each dog has its own personality, just like people," said Scott Dewey, a Waverly professional dog trainer assisting with Vallem's new class, Military Culture and Families. He is also president of Retrieving Freedom Inc., a nonprofit with a branch in Waverly that trains service dogs for military veterans and children with autism.

Vallem, chair of Wartburg's Social Work Department, and Dewey are working together this semester to offer an opportunity for social work majors as well as undergraduate students looking to meet a general education requirement. Understanding the role, needs and sacrifices of military pesonnel and their families is increasingly important given the increase in overseas deployments in recent years, Vallem said.

Students enrolled in the Military Culture class will help train dogs that will eventually be placed with a disabled veteran or a special needs child. In turn, Vallem hopes the experience of teaching, disciplining and praising pups will instill in students an understanding and compassion that extends beyond mere book learning.

"I think they are beginning to get a sensitivity toward persons with disabilities," she said. "They are learning communication skills and most certainly patience and consistency."

Eventually, the dogs will accompany students on campus all day.

Dewey is grateful for a chance to get the word out about the work of Retrieving Freedom and how service dogs can profoundly assist physically and emotionally wounded military men and women.

"Anybody that possibly needs a dog deserves a dog," Dewey said.

Time spent on campus helps to socialize the pups, handpicked for service work. The fact that young adults with no particular dog training skills are doing some of the work is actually good for the dogs, Dewey said.

"They've got to learn to do the commands from people that aren't dog trainers because they are going to be placed with people who aren't dog trainers," Dewey said.

On Tuesday, Traveler, a black Lab, received warm praise and treats when he used his nose to follow a laser pointer's beam in a stairwell. The command can be built upon to teach Traveler to retrieve items for a disabled person.

Students assigned to Traveler agree their dog is smart, noting he once fetched a pair of sophomore Tate Jensen's shoes on command.

"But he likes to play too much sometimes," said sophomore Stephen Kleamenakis of New Orleans.

"I guess it's just continually working with him," Jensen, of Essex, added.

Music therapy major Stephanie Besaw, 19, of Racine, Wis., worked with George, an 11-month Lab.

"It seems like a really interesting class," Besaw said. "Working with dogs is just awesome."

On Tuesday, a group of boys assigned to Jax, a strong-willed yellow Lab, tested their charge's ability to hold a stay despite distractions. They ordered Jax to lay down in different locations, then milled about. For the most part, he complied.

"It's frustrating sometimes, but it's really rewarding when he listens," said Chaz Boots, 20, of Cedar Rapids.

Matt Kruger, 20, of Shoreview, Minn., said he's learned how veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder can suffer from invisible wounds. He's also seeing how service dogs like Jax can help.

Jax will be placed with Navy veteran Leroy Wooff, 43, of Oelwein. Wooff visited the class with other veterans who assist Dewey at Retrieving Freedom, to share personal military insights. Wooff said he searched for submarines and underwater mines during the U.S.-Iraq conflict and still experiences nightmares. He said Jax will help him feel safer at night and socially more at easy in public settings.

"It's just great. It helps me so I can help them to train the dog to fit my personality," Wooff said.

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