A dog is man’s best friend — or is it the other way around?
That was the philosophical quandary at the heart of the circle of puppy raisers sitting cross-legged on the second level of the Snider Ag Arena last Tuesday night.
Small and intimate, the difference between this gathering and a meeting of your local “Mommy and Me” chapter was negligible, aside from the disclaimer at the top of the show revealing that the role of Baby Timmy will now be played by a rotating cast of yellow and black Labs, cradled like newborns in the arms of their adoring parents.
The handlers and their pups had spent about four weeks in each other’s company, living together, commuting to work or school and pondering that great, unknowable mystery that is crate training.
Positive reinforcement is the backbone of their regimen. Clickers and treats are both highly effective in this regard, with the latter emerging as the clear favorite of the fur and snout set.
A dark-haired girl in the circle has recently been encountering some resistance. Her Lab has grown accustomed to following a doggy biscuit directly through the open door of his crate, with the accompanying command registering like the distant sound of a glass shattering somewhere in the kitchen of a four-star restaurant.
His handler has endeavored to take the treat out of the equation altogether, to see if this trick has built up strong enough legs to walk without a crutch. The Lab, meanwhile, sees no reason why he should agree to perform these services without continuing to be paid upfront.
And that, in a nutshell, is parenting.
SSD have been pleased with the dogs that come out of this program. They feel like they’ve been well socialized.
It is also — at least for 18 months or so at a time — the basic premise of Susquehanna Service Dogs, a Keystone Human Services-based organization that recruits volunteers to help shape today’s puppies into the service dogs of tomorrow.
Graduates of the program are matched closely to adults or children with disabilities. There are canines that flip light switches, open and close doors or even pull manual wheelchairs — all skill sets that require the benefit of a higher education.
Nobody was passing around college diplomas at the Ag Arena, though. These were more like primary school puppies.
“In that class we mostly work on basic manners — sit, stay, come,” said Nancy Dreschel, a faculty member in Penn State’s department of animal science.
It was Dreschel who suggested that the dark-haired girl tighten the sequence of cues between the Lab, his crate and the treat.
Dreschel has a long history with SSD. Various representatives from the organization have spoken in her companion animal classes throughout the years and while she was never interested in raising a dog herself, bringing the program to State College seemed like a fair compromise.
The group has been active in one form or another for almost three years and has recently settled into a shape resembling 13 handlers and their assigned Labs.
“A lot of these guys are my students,” Dreschel said.
By proxy, many of these puppies are receiving one of the best college educations that money can buy. They’re going to classes, walking to the HUB for a bite to eat and one of them is even living in a dorm. If Disney ever decides to send Air Bud to university, chances are it will look a lot like this.
These experiences are crucial to the dogs’ development. A service animal needs to be able to filter out distracting stimuli and concentrate on the job at hand — and nothing says “distracting stimuli” like a college campus.
“SSD have been pleased with the dogs that come out of this program,” Dreschel said. “They feel like they’ve been well socialized.”
It does take some getting used to though.
Rachel Reineke is a senior at Penn State and basically the closest thing that a little Lab named Jasper is ever going to have to a first wife. She said that while most of her classmates have acclimated to the puppy’s presence, they still catch the occasional sideways glance when walking across campus.
Jasper is always lurking somewhere in the back of her mind, even when she’s trying to cram it with the contents of her veterinary and biomedical science textbooks.
“Half your brain is used for the rest of your life and half is used for your dog,” Reineke said.
She joined the program after interning with SSD over the summer and credits Jasper’s influence with sparking a much deeper interest in shaping animal behavior — with all its accompanying frustrations and rewards.
This is, after all, still kindergarten, and there are days when Jasper can recite the alphabet from “A” to “Z” and others when he’s content to call it a day around “G” or sooner.
Commands have to be applied slowly and methodically like liquid cement, before they can harden into habit.
“It’s really fantastic when it finally clicks and he gets it,” Reineke said.
Graduation typically occurs after a period of about 18 months or so, with the puppies relocating to an SSD facility in Grantville. This is the big leagues, where all of the advanced training is done.
Temperament and technique have to come together in just the right way — or no dice.
Half your brain is used for the rest of your life and half is used for your dog.
Mark Greenberg, a handler from the Dreschel group in State College, said that roughly 50 percent of the dogs don’t make it through this round of the process. Out of a job but still highly qualified, these Labs will take solace in the arms of a newly adopted family plucked from a long waiting list.
Rachel was the first of three dogs trained by Greenberg and his girlfriend, Cathy Taylor. The technical term for why Rachel was discharged from the program is “vocalizing.”
Greenberg is more blunt.
“I think she might have been a little more needy,” Greenberg said.
Emotional issues or not, Rachel was still a highly- trained animal and a first-class companion to boot. The couple welcomed her back into their home with open arms.
Their third dog, Heron, is still in the early stages of his training. He spends most of his days commuting with Taylor to her regular gig as a psychologist.
In the course of his ongoing training, Heron can consider this an unpaid internship, following in the footsteps of other distinguished alumni from the program that have gone on to work for the CIA or comfort children testifying in open court.
In Taylor’s office, the dog serves as a source of inspiration to kids, some of who are struggling to conform their own behavior to what is expected of them. Taylor said that her younger patients delight in using the clicker to encourage Heron to trot out his bag of tricks.
Failing that, he always has his looks to fall back on.
“Who doesn’t love a puppy?” Taylor said.
IF YOU GO
What: Susquehanna Service Dog Doghouse fundraiser
When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday
Where: The State Theatre, 130 W. College Ave., State College
Info: Notable figures from throughout the community will be placed in “lock up” at the State Theatre. Their bail money (with the support of a raffle) will go toward supporting the Susquehanna Service Dog program.