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The University of Wisconsin-River Falls has initiated a service dog training program under the umbrella of the Animal Science- Companion Animal emphasis program.

Similar programs are offered on at least 12 major campuses across the U.S., but this is the first of its kind within the University of Wisconsin system.

The primary goal of the program is to provide hands-on educational opportunities for students in the companion animal emphasis, comparable to what UW-River Falls offers for students in the meat animal or equine emphases in animal science.

UW-River Falls is partnering with Coco's Heart Dog Rescue of Hudson in this effort. All dogs entering the program will be evaluated and must be socially mature, free from illness or health issues and have a good temperament.

The first dog was accepted into the program last month. A group of four students will be providing socialization, habituation and foundational training for this service dog-in-training, with the hope that the dog will be able to enter an advanced level service dog training program. Dogs that do not enter service will be available for adoption as a quality companion animal.

Service dogs are different from therapy dogs or emotional support dogs. They are individually trained to perform specific tasks as required by a disabled person. Examples of tasks include guiding a blind person, alerting a deaf person, or calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during an anxiety attack.

Service dogs are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act and are allowed to accompany the disabled individual anywhere the general public is normally allowed. It is up to individual states to set the guidelines for a service dog-in-training; both Wisconsin and Minnesota allow dogs-in-training full access as if they were a service dog.

'We see this program as a bridge between dogs facing euthanasia and entering service. Even though great care is taken in selecting the dogs to enter the training program, approximately 70 percent will not qualify to go on to the advanced level of service dog training,' said Beth Rausch, assistant professor of animal science. 'I compare this to the training to becoming an astronaut. A lot of individuals enter the training program, but very few actually end up at NASA on a spaceflight.'

The program itself fits within the curriculum of the companion animal emphasis, however, financial support for the care of the dog while in the program will be covered through donations. A service dog fund has been set up with the UWRF Foundation specifically for this need.

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