A program that will teach Wesleyan students how to train service dogs will be coming to the University within the next few months. Mira Alicki, the founder and president of the Forever in My Heart Foundation, will be bringing her program to campus with the support of Adjunct Professor of Physical Education and Head Squash Coach Shona Kerr.
Kerr and Alicki hope to start a club, supported by the Forever in My Heart Foundation, that will eventually be run primarily by students. After learning about the process, students will train dogs as service animals to be placed with veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or mobility issues.
The Forever in My Heart Foundation is a non-profit organization based in Middletown that rescues dogs and trains them to be service animals for disabled United States veterans. When Alicki and Kerr met with The Argus last week, Alicki explained that the mission of the foundation is two-fold.
“We actually have two pillars to our mission,” Alicki said. “One is to make a difference in the lives of dogs. Some of our dogs come from a rescue situation. Recently, [one of our] rescue missions in Ukraine brought four or five labrador puppies. The other pillar is to improve the lives of people with disabilities.”
Over the next few months, Alicki and Kerr will be involved in interviewing and selecting interested students to become service dog trainers. Selected students will be required to take part in a series of hour-long training sessions over the course of a few weeks, before a puppy is placed to live on campus with them for the school year. These students will be the puppies’ main trainers for the entirety of their training process, which may last up to two years.
“The dogs that we train learn everything, from basic obedience to tasks that are necessary [to assist] people with disabilities,” Alicki said. “It’s an 18- to 24-month training program, about 1200 hours of training [in total], and the dogs graduating will know about between 150 and 200 commands.”
To begin with, the club will place only two or three dogs, likely older ones with some previous training, with students on campus. More experienced trainers from the Forever in My Heart Foundation will check in on their training progress at least once a week.
The program that Alicki and Kerr plan to bring to campus is modeled on a program that the Forever in My Heart Foundation has been directing at the York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Connecticut, since 2017, in which puppies are placed with and trained by inmates at the facility.
Alicki and Kerr emphasized that they aren’t just inviting students who want to train a dog to join this proposed club. They are also looking for students to work on other areas of the program, such as its finances, social media, and community outreach.
“We are supervising the program, [but] I want this program to become a Wesleyan program,” Alicki said. “What I envision doing is that the [students] that sign up for this program will come up with a name for it. They can create a Facebook page and Instagram page, as well. Going forward, whatever [ideas] the students envision will be on the table for discussion.”
Once the club is up and running, Alicki and Kerr hope that students will see it as an opportunity to connect the University with surrounding communities. For example, they hope to foster a connection with students from Niantic Center Elementary School, who helped raise funds for the purchase of one of the dogs being trained by the Forever in My Heart Foundation.
“Maybe we can [coordinate] bringing a dog to [Niantic Center Elementary] school to give emotional support to the kids,” Alicki said.
Kerr and Alicki outlined some prerequisites for students who are considering joining the club. They are considering a minimum GPA as a gateway for entrance and plan to recruit only upperclassmen as trainers, as they would prefer to work with students who are already adjusted to the school community. However, first-year students will have other opportunities to be involved in the club.
“We will not allow freshmen to be handlers of the dogs…because this is a new environment for them,” Alicki explained. “New schools, new professors, and we feel like they should take their [first] year to adjust to university, the studies, and life before they take on the responsibilities of caring for a dog. If freshmen want to be involved on some level, we can get them to do smaller jobs.”
The program’s precise launch date is undecided, but Alicki and Kerr have already begun the recruitment process and hope to have the dogs on campus by next semester. Alicki and Kerr will continue to work alongside Vice President of Student Affairs Michael Whaley to arrange an official launch date and other details of the club’s operation.
“Before we start actual work, we have to have another meeting with [Whaley] to organize this with the University, so it works for us and for the University,” Alicki said. “I think that by next semester we’ll have some dogs on campus.”
Whaley expressed his support for the new club, emphasizing his enthusiasm to work with Alicki and Kerr to get its operations underway. Whaley also hopes that students who train dogs will be fully prepared for the level of responsibility that this project will require.
“As any pet owner (myself included) can tell you, caring for an animal is time-consuming and a labor of love— not something to be entered into lightly, especially on a University campus with students’ hectic schedules,” Whaley wrote in an email to The Argus. “If a dedicated group of students are interested in the project, then I think it can be successful and rewarding.”
Students who would like to be a part of this club can fill out a Google Form to demonstrate their interest and explain why they would like to join.
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