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Student Life | Community Service | March 6, 2012

College Students Foster Service Dogs for Children with Disabilities

By Jessa Brown | For

One of the hardest things many students find about leaving home for college is the loss of their four footed companions. Now many students in the Ohio and Kentucky area are filling that void with a service dog. No, these dogs are not doing their homework for them. These service dogs are in training to help children with disabilities as part of the 4 Paws for Ability University Program.

About 4 Paws for Ability

4 Paws for Ability, located in Xenia Ohio has been training service dogs since ’98. We have placed over 600 service dogs, most of them with children. The most common placements are with children with Autism, seizure disorders, mobility impairments, hearing impairments, and FASD.

4 Paws started their University Program at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio over 3 years ago. From there the program has grown to include the University of Kentucky and Wright State University. Miami University and several other colleges are in the process of developing a foster program. This semester (spring ‘12) we have 36 dogs at 5 different colleges and the program is only getting bigger.

From Prisons to Campus: Life as a 4 Paws Dog

McCloud with Class at UK

Fostering a service dog is a big commitment. Students foster service dogs in training for a semester. They take the dogs with them everywhere they go from class to sports events, meetings to the movies. Students undergo a rigorous application process and once accepted have to attend regular meetings and work with the dog on a daily basis. 4 Paws dogs destined for college life start out at the center in Xenia where they are cared for and socialized by staff and volunteers. Once they are 8 weeks or older they go into one of 5 men’s prisons. The inmates work with the dogs twenty four/seven teaching them basic obedience and house manners. After six weeks the dogs come out of prison and return to the 4 Paws center for more socialization. This process repeats until the dogs are about five to seven months old. Now have mastered the basics and are ready for college!

Common Questions about the 4 Paws for Ability University Program

What are the benefits of volunteering to foster a service dog at college? Students that participate in this program gain a wealth of knowledge about dogs, confidence, responsibility, communication skills, and the pleasure of service work.

The biggest service the students provide for their foster dog is socialization. Students are typically very active and the dogs are exposed to many new and positive environments and people. This is essential for a well-rounded service dog. You can have a dog that can perform all the service dogs tasks, but out in public falls apart because they are nervous or overly excited. That dog can’t perform the tasks they are trained to do in public. Dogs that go through one of our University Programs have a higher success rate than dogs that do not go into foster.


How much does the program cost? Nothing! 4 Paws provides it’s fosters with all the supplies that they need to care for the dog and all veterinary work is done at the facility by 4 Paws.

What happens to the dog after they return to 4 Paws? After a semester the dog returns to 4 Paws for their advanced training before placement as a service dog. Students are then invited to their foster dog’s graduation where they meet the family that the dog is placed with. This is probably one of the most rewarding aspects of the program. Many students develop a close friendship with the dog’s new family and you often will find fosters and families talking on a regular basis and even visiting each other if distance allows.

How do I get involved? Students interested in participating at a school that already has a program, can contact the student coordinators. A prospective student fills out an application, is interviewed by the student coordinator, and then has a home visit to make sure the environment is safe for a dog. Once a student is accepted into the program the 4 Paws University Program Coordinator matches the student with a dog based on the student’s desires and personality.

An orientation then takes place where the students are introduced to the program, review the contract, and learn how to handle their foster dog. After that initial meeting, students meet with the 4 Paws Coordinator on a bi-weekly basis to work with the foster dog on any issues and learn new commands.

Wonka graduating from Wittenberg

Students who are interested in fostering a dog at a school that does not have a program yet can contact Jessa at The one catch is that the school needs to be within a 3-hour radius of 4 Paws in Xenia, Ohio.

Jessa Brown is a 4 Paws for Ability trainer and the University Program Coordinator. Jessa is a graduate of Bennington College.

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