4 Paws @Big Blue

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LEXINGTON, Ky. – As the brightly colored autumn leaves wisp passed the busy, bustling students on their way across campus to their next lecture, some students at the University of Kentucky are taking a moment to say ‘goodbye’ to those who became best friends to them throughout the fall semester.

Smiles and tears cannot be contained as these young co-eds’ hearts are breaking for the better good of their recently made furry best friends. They kneel down and wrap their arms around them, squeeze them tight, pet the top of their heads, look them in the eye and kiss their nose.

One student tells her dog, “Be a good service dog for your boy or girl, OK?” with a tear rushing down her face, quickly followed by a few more, as she lifts her Golden Retriever foster up and into the van that 4 Paws for Ability trainer Jessa Brown has brought to retrieve the dogs for further training in Xenia.

Seventeen UK students spent their first semester in the 2012-13 school year, fostering 12 4 Paws for Ability service dogs in training, but now the semester was coming to an end, as was their newly found companionship.

Caitie Little, a senior animal science/pre-veterinarian major, says goodbye to Pretzel, a chocolate Labrador Retriever among her fellow students. But this isn’t her first time.

Little, 21, who heads up the UK Paws on Campus Program for 4 Paws for Ability, has fostered five dogs throughout her collegiate career. It never gets easier to say goodbye though. As they have a moment before leaving each other, 9-month-old Pretzel, who dons a pink collar, lays on her back with her legs up as Little rubs her belly. She knows it’s her last day as a college pup.

Knowing that she is helping children with disabilities have the life they deserve makes this bittersweet moment a little more palatable for Little.

“It’s for a great cause. I’m obsessed with dogs,” said Little, who has about five more years of school before becoming a veterinarian. “Its most rewarding part is watching them graduate—seeing what a big difference they make.”

“I love seeing pictures, to see how they’ve progressed, and how the child and dog are connecting. It makes me happy.”

But it’s been a busy semester for dogs like Pretzel. The Campus Program, Paws on Campus gives them the chance to socialize and continue their performance training after their stint in the 4 Paws prison program, Mission Pawsible™.

At college, they go everywhere with their foster student, from class to the store, to the dorm room and everywhere in between. The students understand exactly what they’re providing to the children of 4 Paws.

“The program as a whole provides such a good service to those who need the dogs. I think there is no better way to have a dog while at school because one day they’ll make a child as happy as they made me and offer them so much more,” said Quinn Bragg, another UK foster student to Fantasy, a Golden Retriever.

After they leave campus, they’ll return to 4 Paws for more training and some will return to prison for further training. Some, however, will be ready for an upcoming class after extensive one-on-one training with the trainers at 4 Paws for Ability. Trainers like Brown, who is the director of the Campus Program and has seen many tears shed by foster students in her time at 4 Paws.

“It’s not only awesome for the dogs to have so much intense socialization, confidence, but just as equally is so awesome for the students,” she said about the program that got its start at Wittenberg University near Dayton, Ohio, in 2008. Logan Bright attended Wittenberg, then transferred to UK and started the program in Lexington in 2009.

“[These students] donate their time, effort and love” to the dogs, said Brown.

For the students, it gives them not only a good resume booster, but teaches them responsibility while living on their own for the first time as well as social skills and confidence of their own.

Students like Bragg, a 20-year-old double major in business analytics and management and a dog lover, learned a lot, especially about the hardship of saying goodbye. A photo of her hugging Fantasy can be seen on the 4 Paws for Ability Facebook page’s cover photo. It was a moment that she won’t soon forget.

“Giving them back was the most difficult part of the whole experience because over the course of the semester it is very difficult not to get attached.”

“[It was] more emotional than I anticipated! It was extremely difficult not to get attached over the course of the semester, and I wish I could keep Fantasy, but we all know going into it that that is not the case, so to an extent we prepare ourselves beforehand.”

That struggle for her was worth the tears shed, realizing the end result for Fantasy.

“Knowing that I helped train a dog that will one day help a little kid with everyday tasks and love them unconditionally is the most rewarding. It’s hard knowing you’ll have to give the dogs up but with this reminder in the back of my head, it made it OK,” said Bragg. 

Being a foster student to Fantasy has changed Bragg for the better. Not only did her fostering help Fantasy learn the tools of responsibility, but it also allowed Bragg to pick up a few new tricks as well.

“I’ve always thought of myself as a responsible person but training and taking care of a puppy on your own 100 percent of the time is definitely a test of that and made me a more responsible person because I wasn’t just taking care of myself anymore.”

“I’ve also learned to be more patient, the puppy won’t always do what you ask and what you expect of him/her so patience is key because they’re smart and eventually they do get it. I also thought more about who this is benefitting and it definitely made me more appreciative of what I have, the life I live, and the fact that I get to train the dog to help someone else rather it being the other way around.”

The option to stay in touch with whomever the family is who ends up Fantasy is what she hopes will happen, said Bragg.

“It is nice because I feel we put a lot of time, hard work, and devotion towards these puppies and it’s very hard giving them up so the reassurance that they’re doing their job well and are happy makes up for the loss we feel giving them back.” 

Photos and story by Jessica Noll-Korczyk

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Photo Gallery: UK says, ‘Goodbye’