By Maya Bell
CORAL GABLES, Fla. (June 19, 2015) — Barely a foot tall and weighing just over 10 pounds, Trenton is not a typical college freshman. But don’t be fooled by his irresistible, tail-wagging cuteness. The eight-week-old puppy arrived on the University of Miami Coral Gables campus this month to do some very serious learning—and a good bit of teaching, too.
For the next 18 months, the yellow Labrador-golden retriever mix will be learning house manners, public etiquette, social skills, and basic commands from his volunteer puppy raisers, the family of Joy Beverly, a math instructor and associate faculty master at Pearson Residential College, and a handful of students. Together, they are committed to establishing UM’s first service club dedicated to raising puppies who could become highly trained assistants for people with physical and developmental disabilities.
Though they’re starting by providing the preliminary training and socialization Trenton needs to become an assistance dog for Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), they have bigger dreams. They think UM could become a permanent training ground for puppy raisers who, year after year, will help the nonprofit organization match people who could enhance their independence with help from a dog who can open doors, pull a wheelchair, turn on lights, pick up dropped objects, push elevator buttons, and perform innumerable other tasks most of us take for granted.
“It’s the start of a legacy, and Trenton is the founding father,” said junior Lindsey Slavin, a psychology major who learned about the club in Beverly’s calculus class. “It’s an awesome and unique way to get involved in something that will really make an impact.”
But assistance dogs aren’t just born; they are specially bred and, in the case of CCI’s charges, raised in a very structured environment for 18 months by volunteers who agree to provide them safe homes, proper diet, and obedience training, plus lots of love, opportunities for socialization, and exposure to real-world situations.
“Being on a college campus is really ideal for that,” says Beverly, who with husband Jerry and their three daughters raised their first assistance dog-in-training, Colin, six years ago, when they lived off campus. “Service dogs can’t flinch when they hear noises; they can’t be afraid of getting on an elevator or a bus. They can’t freak out when a skateboarder zips by, and they’ll get exposure to all of that on campus, and more.”
Indeed. Don’t be surprised to see Trenton in Pearson Residential College, where the Beverlys’ middle daughter, Samantha, an education major, will be a residential assistant. Or in Joy Beverly’s calculus class, or at the Rathskeller, the Wellness Center, the library, on the Metrorail, in the grocery story, or, by next fall, a Hurricanes football game. After all, his job is to soak up all the experiences he can, and remain calm, unfazed, and focused through all of them.
Then he’ll be ready for his advanced training with professional instructors at CCI’s Regional Training Center in Orlando. He’ll spend nearly a year there, and if he shows he is the kind of gold-medal athlete it takes to become a Canine Companions assistance dog—only a minority are—he’ll be paired with a recipient who has requested an assistant, and they’ll train together for another two weeks.
For now, Trenton, who is largely housebound until he’s had all his shots, has no idea about his important mission. After being weaned from his mom, who gave birth to him at CCI’s California breeding facility, and arriving in Miami on June 12 in the cargo hold of a jetliner, he’s been busy napping, nipping, and exploring his new surroundings. He was curious, but calm, when four ducklings checked him out during a brief visit to Lake Osceola and he’s already accustomed to the strange sounds of daily life—the sneezes, the coffee grinder, the dishwasher— in the Beverlys’ apartment.
If he was absorbing the lesson imparted last week, he’s also learning from big brother Colin not to be possessive. Colin, who was returned to the Beverlys when, like nearly 60 percent of CCI candidates he did not place with a recipient, was unbothered when Trenton snagged and trotted off with his bone.
Once Trenton is allowed out and about, he won’t be hard to spot. If he’s working—and training is work—he’ll be wearing his bright yellow-and-blue CCI vest, a signal that those inclined to pet him should resist the temptation. It’s also a reminder to the Beverlys, Slavin, and Trenton’s other student handlers that he is not their dog.
“Puppies melt your heart, but people, including us, have to use self-control around assistance dogs,” says Jerry Beverly, who with Samantha plans to be Trenton’s primary puppy raiser. “When they want to hug him and say, ‘Oh I love your dog,’ we have to say, ‘He is not our dog. We’re just raising him.”’
Jerry Beverly, who owns the leadership development firm Leaders Unlimited, credits his family’s experience with Colin with making both him and his wife better parents and his daughters more consistent, empathetic, and responsible. “We’re so eager to get UM deeply involved with CCI because with Colin I saw what it did for my daughters,” he said. “It opens you up to a new phase of development, which is why having a puppy-raising club on college campuses makes sense.”
It also makes sense to Cathy Benson, the executive director of CCI’s Southeast region, which welcomed a puppy-raising club at Tulane University about two years ago and is working with the University of Central Florida on establishing its own program.
“Recruiting college students to become volunteer puppy raisers is a big interest of ours,” Benson wrote recently. “It opens us up to a whole new demographic, and college students can provide great socialization opportunities for our dogs. In addition, they help us promote awareness of our mission and help increase other students’ awareness of disabilities.”
It will also give Slavin, who over her lifetime has raised nine yellow labs as family pets, the most unexpected but cherished opportunity. The vice chair of the eco branch of Student Government and a member of the Honor Council, she transferred to UM last year specifically to become more active on campus.
“But never in a million years did I think that I’d be able to help raise a Labrador for someone who really needs one,” she said. “Dogs are true life-changers; I can’t imagine my life without the special bond I share with my own labs. I feel so blessed to have this opportunity to raise an intelligent, supportive companion for someone in need. It feels meant to be.”