Puppies with Purpose

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COLUMBIA - A new organization comprised of students from the University of Missouri began this year to help offset the shortage of service dogs throughout the country.

Veterinarian Dr. TerriAnn Tucker-Warhover created "Puppies with Purpose" after seeing a similar program in Xenia, Ohio called "4 Paws for Ability."

"What we're trying to do is help fight the lack of service dogs by providing more puppies to be able to enter into service dog training programs," said Warhover. "Only about 50 percent of puppies that enter the programs actually graduate."

People with disabilities needing assistance from a service dog sometimes have to wait years to obtain one. "The more puppies we get going in, hopefully, we'll get more puppies coming out that will be able to help those with disabilities," said Warhover.

Puppies with Purpose prepares puppies for the rigorous process of becoming service dogs. Student puppy raisers and sitters work to socialize puppies by exposing them to a wide variety of people, noises and situations.

According to Warhover, socializing puppies at a young age is preferable and helps ready them for things they may encounter as service dogs. She said a campus is perfect for socializing puppies because it offers a wide variety of exposure.

"There is always someone in a wheelchair, walking on crutches, and every color, shape and size of a person," said Warhover. "And all of these are things we have to get the puppies exposed to. If they get exposed to these things while they're young then they are not fearful of them when they are older."

Warhover said exposure is essential for service dogs. "It would not be good for service dogs to be afraid of a loud noise," said Warhover. "If they freak out, then they might hurt their partner."

Puppies with Purpose works with its parent organization, C.H.A.M.P. Assistance Dogs, Inc., in Vandalia. The acronym stands for Canine Helpers Allow More Possibilities. After student volunteers socialize the puppies, the puppies are sent to C.H.A.M.P. to begin service dog training. Warhover partnered with C.H.A.M.P. because the organization is based on donations and doesn't charge recipients for service dogs.

A sweet-tempered Golden Retriever named Dewey is the organization's first puppy. Warhover's daughter Megan spent 12 weeks raising and socializing Dewey. From attending classes at Mizzou to grocery shopping, Dewey went everywhere with her.

Dewey is currently spending four weeks in Vandalia with C.H.A.M.P. at the Women's Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center. C.H.A.M.P. is partnered with the Missouri Department of Corrections and works with a group of women offenders that help train its dogs. The women offenders help train the dogs on everything from basic skills to advanced service dog skills. The dogs live on-site in their trainer's rooms and accompany their trainers throughout the prison campus.

After the four-week period in Vandalia, Dewey will return to Columbia to continue socialization training. From there, the dog will rotate back and forth between Columbia and Vandalia during the two-year training program.

When in Columbia, a variety of puppy sitters took Dewey for 2 to 3 hours at a time throughout the week. Considering the puppy sitters are all students, Warhover said this created some problems when they tried to bring Dewey back to their dorms.

However, Missouri Statute 209.152 states, "Any trainer, from a recognized training center, of a guide dog, hearing assistance dog or service dog shall have the right to be accompanied by such dog in or upon any of the premises listed in section 209.150 while engaged in the training of the dog without being required to pay an extra charge for such dog. Such trainer shall be liable for any damage done to the premise of facilities by such dog."

"A lot of it is just people not really understanding or knowing the law," said Warhover. "We're working right now with residential life to see if we can get the puppies into residence halls. We're asking that they allow the students to at least have the puppies in the residence halls for you know, 2 or 3 hours at a time."

The director of residential life at Mizzou, Frankie Minor, said Dewey and other puppies in training are welcome to visit the dorms. However, he has concerns with puppies living in the dorms permanently. "When we first talked to Dr. Warhover, she had had an idea about puppies living in the residence halls on a regular basis, and as we examined the feasibility of that it became very unpractical," said Minor. "The residence halls weren't really set up for that. But she approached me again this year about the puppies coming to visit periodically and that's actually something we've been able to accommodate more."

Minor said, "Service animals coming into the facility is not something that's been unfamiliar to us. We've accommodated that for a number of years. It was more the issue of the service animal who's in training not being technically classified as a service animal and not yet having the skills or the control for doing that. And the fact that the majority of our residence halls are freshmen and freshmen themselves are going through a lot of different adjustments. We want this to be an addition - not a distraction to the puppies experience and the students experience as well."

Raising and training a service dog is expensive. "It costs up to about $30,000 dollars for these puppies for over a two year period to purchase them, to raise them, to train them, and to socialize them," said Warhover. Puppies with Purpose held bake sales and walked around football games to collect donations. Since September, the organization has raised $800 dollars. C.H.A.M.P. assists Puppies with Purpose with covering the additional cost of funding.

Warhover plans to add two more puppies to the program next semester. Her overall goal is to have eight puppies in the program in different stages of training by the end of 2014.

Warhover is optimistic about the organization's first puppy. "I think he'd make an amazing service dog," said Warhover. "He has the best temperament."

"He (Dewey) is our first so we're kind of partial," continued Warhover. "He set the standard pretty high. When we get our next two puppies second semester, they're going to have a tough road to follow."