Cardinal Canines, a student group dedicated to service dog training, successfully placed two service dogs on campus in collaboration with the Forever in My Heart Foundation on Sunday, Feb. 19. Two members of the club—Elizabeth Campagna ’25 and President Elizabeth Rowe ’23—are now looking after the puppies and overseeing their training. Labrador retrievers Adel and Sunny have been participating in campus life for a week.
Since The Argus last spoke with founder and president of the Forever in My Heart Foundation Mira Alicki and Head Squash Coach Shona Kerr in October 2022, the foundation has actively worked with students to form Cardinal Canines, and regular training sessions with the puppies have been running smoothly for over four months. Despite long negotiations with the University that delayed placing the dogs on campus, the two groups hope that they can further develop the program and open up future opportunities.
Throughout their six years of training rescue dogs as service animals, the Forever in My Heart Foundation has formed cooperative partnerships with local organizations like Cardinal Canines. The foundation trains dogs to be calm, helpful companions for veterans with PTSD and autistic children.
“We are currently training for veterans with immobility and PTSD, but we are about to expand the program and start pilot programs for facility dogs as well,” Alicki said. “We also have meetings set up with other organizations [so] that we can hopefully start [to] pilot programs for children with disabilities and hospitals and [train] other facility dogs to expand the [purpose] of the service dogs and to begin assist[ing] multiple people.”
The service dogs are trained to work in different environments so that they can be of use to people in a variety of professions. Before the service dogs go to their permanent placement, however, it is important that they be socialized—hence their placement at the University.
“Some of our service dogs are great, but [right now] they are basically one-person dogs,” Alicki said. “They [are] not gonna be good [if] working with multiple people and a big environment.”
Since the dogs have to be trained before adoption and will receive regular check-ins after being adopted, collaboration between Cardinal Canines and the Forever in My Heart Foundation will continue throughout the transition of these dogs.
“To involve [Cardinal Canines members] in the transition of those dogs to a permanent home will be very important because [they] will have the knowledge of these dogs,” Alicki said.
Just as these dogs are going through socialization training, primary handlers must acclimate to their new roles. Rowe, the primary handler of the service dog Sunny, is facing big changes in her life with the arrival of her new furry housemate. According to Rowe, being a primary handler has brought her life on campus some tension, but it has proved satisfying.
“It’s definitely been a big adjustment,” Rowe said. “It’s a lot of work. Especially since I don’t just leave [Sunny] at home and go about my business, we’re kind of both working all the time, and I can’t really do anything on campus quickly or discreetly anymore. But it’s been super fun to see people smile at him as they walk past. That’s super cute.”
The primary handlers do not work alone, however. Cardinal Canines has formed a puppy-sitting group, which offers help whenever the primary handlers are busy.
“I’m on the crew team, so I have practice pretty much every day,” Rowe said. “[Sunny] has babysitters that take him for a few hours, which is great so that he can have multiple people handling him because eventually he’s not gonna be my service dog. He’ll be a service dog for someone else, so it’s important for him to be able to listen to different people.”
Rowe’s housemates are also thrilled about their new companion, eagerly welcoming him into their residence.
“They all have dogs at home, so they were super excited,” Rowe said. “I think they really like him. They all have been playing with [him].”
Before the dogs arrived on campus, Rowe and the Forever in My Heart Foundation had several negotiations with the University before coming to an agreement on the launch of the program. Despite miscommunication and uncertain timelines, both parties looked forward to the successful implementation of the project.
“It was a bit complicated getting everything approved, so we actually had to delay [the] dogs’ arrival by a couple of weeks, but ultimately, the school was cooperative,” Rowe said. “They definitely want to see the program succeed. There were just a lot of hoops that we had to jump through first, but I would say, overall, they’re very supportive.”
Alicki also confirmed the University’s excitement for the program, recognizing that the program could benefit both the student body and the dogs.
“I think it will be so beneficial to use these dogs for other students to come in and have contact with them,” Alicki said, “Also, I think what would be really beneficial is to use these dogs for kids that are suffering from mental health [issues] at Wesleyan.”
The program is a not only a new endeavor for the University, but also the first collaboration experience that these professional trainers have had with college students. Vice President of the Forever in My Heart Foundation Douglas Sanders expressed surprise at the rapid progress made by members of Cardinal Canines.
“I’ve done obedience training with people before, but not students, so this will be the first time at a college [to run the] training program as we have now at Wesleyan,” Sanders said. “Everybody has progressed very quickly.”
Sanders suggested that persistence, not experience, is the key to becoming a successful trainer. Over the course of four months, inexperienced trainers at Cardinal Canines have become comfortable working with dogs.
“Before, the disparity between somebody who’s trained dogs and somebody who’s never trained dogs was very significant,” Sanders said. “And now everybody has moved up, but that gap has closed.”
During the training sessions, Sanders encouraged trainers to step out of their comfort zones by working with dogs with whom they were unfamiliar. Instructors from Forever in My Heart Foundation like to remind students that as the trainers are training the dogs, the dogs are training them in return.
“They will continuously challenge you,” Sanders said. “Just like people, all dogs are different from each other, so there’s always something to learn.”
As the club continues to grow and expand the scope of its work, both Cardinal Canines and the Forever in My Heart Foundation see a bright future ahead. Sanders believes that this program provides a good opportunity for developing skills beyond training techniques.
“You can get into many parts of the [public relations] side of things, marketing, management, [and human resources],” Sanders said. “One of the reasons I got involved is to give back to people, to society, to make a difference.”
Cardinal Canines looks forward to having more Wesleyan students participate in their club. Although they have successfully placed service dogs at the University, maintaining the long-term success of the program will require continued investment by the club and the foundation. Rowe and Alicki both talked about their perspective on the future of their collaboration.
“I hope that we set up a good foundation for the club to grow. We’ve been talking about a program house or more dogs on campus [in the future],” Rowe said. “I personally won’t see [this happen] because I’m graduating, but I anticipate that a lot of people will want to join next fall.”
Alicki envisioned an establishment of different committees to better administer the club and organize events on the Wesleyan campus.
“My plan for the club [would] be to obviously train the dogs, but then also put together a committee,” Alicki said. “Like a marketing committee [and a] community outreach committee, which this year may not work, but next year if we were allowed to have a puppy day that students can come in, there will be a community committee that organizes.”
The club has also set up its official Instagram account, @cardinal_canines, where they will be providing followers with updates.
Linda Lu can be reached at email@example.com.