Come meet the CSU Collar Scholars and their canine coworkers

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Collegian | Reiley Costa

True, the youngest puppy in the Collar Scholars club at Colorado State University, rests in Emily Arnow’s arms during the meeting in the Andrew G. Clark Building at Colorado State University Sept. 20.

Bella Eckburg, Opinion Director

The Colorado State University community is full of diverse clubs, activities and groups of people. 

The Collar Scholars club at CSU is a campus extension of the charity Canine Companions, a nonprofit group that works nationwide to provide free, professionally trained service dogs to people with disabilities who submit an application. 

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True poses for a photo after the Collar Scholars meeting on
True poses for a photo after the Collar Scholars meeting in the Andrew G. Clark Building at Colorado State University Sept. 20. (Collegian | Reiley Costa)

Collar Scholars is a puppy’s first introduction to its future in service. They spend the first 18 months of their lives with their designated puppy raiser, who helps them socialize, teaches them nearly 30 cues and prepares them for doggy graduation at Canine Companions. 

Although not all groups of Canine Companions puppy raisers are located on college campuses, CSU Collar Scholars President Emily Arnow said it’s one of the best places for these dogs to learn. 

“In a five-minute walk to class, you can see skateboards; you can see giant inflatables; you can see squirrels (and) other dogs,” Arnow said. “It’s a really phenomenal environment that you don’t get many other places with so many support systems in one spot.”

You might be wondering if the puppies are raised with all work and no play, but Arnow said that could not be further from the truth. 

“We teach them to differentiate between working and not,” Arnow said. “We teach them appropriate play — so we don’t want them stealing socks or licking the kitchen floor, which is a work in progress for us,” she laughed, gesturing down at her puppy Delta VI, a sleek black Labrador and golden retriever mix donning a vest that read “future service dog.” 

The dogs that come through the Collar Scholars are all either Labradors, golden retrievers or a mix of the two. 

They go through extensive vetting to ensure they possess the right temperament for the job, and then they are placed into the hands of the puppy raisers. 

“I think my favorite part would have to be knowing that no matter where this journey takes them, they will change someone’s life for the better.” –Jessica Lalone, Collar Scholars vice president

Following every dog’s graduation and any subsequent professional training, they are matched to those who applied for a service dog and spend the next eight years helping their owner in everyday life. When they are matched to their future owners, the decision is based on what the applicant needs and what the dogs can provide. 

After that, they retire and spend the rest of their lives as playful pets who happen to be trained as medical equipment. 

Although it can be hard to return the dogs to Canine Companions for their graduation and placement, Collar Scholars recognizes the importance of the work they do and how much the dogs will help their future owners. They even get to attend and present the dog they raised at graduation. 

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Hoops maintains eye contact with a student handler during the Collar Scholars meeting in the Clark building at Colorado State University
Hoops maintains eye contact with a student handler during the Collar Scholars meeting in the Andrew G. Clark Building at Colorado State University Sept. 20. (Collegian | Reiley Costa)

“I think my favorite part would have to be knowing that no matter where this journey takes them, they will change someone’s life for the better,” said Jessica Lalone, the club’s vice president, who got involved with the club after spotting someone on campus training a puppy and found the club’s resource page online.

There are three types of positions in the Collar Scholars club: puppy raisers, who are assigned a puppy and live and work with them for those 18 months; puppy sitters, who work as needed to ensure the puppies have different experiences and stimulation when the raisers are unavailable (for example, if the puppy is not yet well trained enough to attend all of the raiser’s classes without being potentially disruptive); and general members. 

In the club’s general meetings, all four of the currently assigned dogs gather in the room and complete tasks and desensitization techniques with the group. This comes in the form of a few games, including “I Spy,” wherein group members “spy” a part of the dog and touch it (like their ears or paws) to see if they have a reaction, and human-made obstacle courses to train them to maneuver in crowded areas. 

The dogs seemed to be having fun, and the meetings allow every group member who may not have consistent interactions with the dogs to experience their skills firsthand: watching as they walk closely at their raiser’s left side and complete cue after cue — accompanied by a lot of positive reinforcement in the form of treats, of course.

The club’s next general meeting is at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 4 in the Behavioral Sciences Building on campus, and they’re always looking for new members who want to be a part of making a difference in providing accessibility and more independence to those with disabilities.

Reach Bella Eckburg at life@collegian.com or on Twitter @yaycolor.