Since Saint Peter’s University reopened it’s campus, not only did students return but a four legged student majoring in chaos and minoring in pooping began her college career as well.
Neera, a four-month-old female Labrador Retriever, will be attending classes on campus for the next year as she trains to be a service dog.
Taylor Rondon, President of the Puppy Club and member of the softball team has volunteered to be a puppy raiser for Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), a non-profit organization that matches highly trained assistance dogs to people with disabilities.
CCI breeds Labrador and Golden Retrievers in California to be service dogs by recruiting volunteers from different parts of the country to nurture newborn puppies for 18 months.
Neera is currently a resident puppy living with Rondon in her campus dorm.
“I’m a single mom raising my baby,” says Rondon, who teaches Neera basic obedience commands and socialization skills.
Volunteers are responsible for potty training the puppy and teaching them simple commands such as when to sit, lay down and to wait for permission to eat.
After the initial 18 month period, all puppies are returned to the Northeast Regional CCI center for an additional training of 6 months with professionals. If the puppies do well, they graduate from the program and are paired with a physically disabled adult or child.
If the puppies do not graduate, they are released and can be adopted by their volunteer trainer or by anyone else that CCI see’s fit. Some released puppies can also become therapy dogs.
“If Neera graduates, she will have interviews with potential people who need service dogs, and will be paired with whoever she likes and seems to be the best fit for. So it’s truly a pair for life,” added Rondon.
The Puppy Club’s advisor and co-raiser of Neera, Dr. Patricia Redden, began the club to raise awareness of service animals, disabilities rights and accessibility. As a mother of two children with disabilities, she has seen the great impact of service dogs and was motivated to volunteer in training assistance dogs.
“Including Neera, I have raised nine potential service dogs,” says Redden.
Redden discovered CCI when she was researching service dog organizations in the area. She immediately became interested, not only because it provides service dogs at no cost, but especially because once a volunteer trainer returns the puppy, they’re allowed to remain in contact with them.
“I wasn’t sure about giving the puppy back once I began raising it because that’s the worst part. But with this organization, during the 6 month period after you return the puppy you get a monthly report card on how the puppy is doing,” added Redden.
These reports include information on what the puppy is learning, what they’re best at, what part of training they are having difficulty with and what specific disabilities they could potentially have to work with.
“If and when they graduate, we meet the person the puppy is paired with and are able to hand over the leash at the puppy’s graduation ceremony,” added Redden. “Usually the person keeps in touch so we are able to know where our pups are.”
Volunteers are normally responsible for any costs related to the dog, including food, toys and veterinary visits. However any puppy being trained by an SPU student has their health expenses covered by an alum who is now a veterinarian. Students also receive financial support through a CCI grant for volunteers in college.
Rondon herself is studying to become a veterinarian and is looking to apply to a veterinarian school.
“I love animals and I’ve worked at an animal hospital for about two years. So when I found out about this program and that you could literally have a dog on campus with you all the time. I was like yes! Absolutely! Sign me up, where can I sign up?!” said Rondon.
Neera arrived at the Newark International Airport with her sister Nelly on June 23, 2021 from California.
“It was a really cute and humbling experience to open that kennel and have Neera come rushing towards me and lick me. I was like, I want this one! I hope this is Neera and it was,” says Rondon as she fondly remembers the first time she met Neera.
You don’t have to be a puppy raiser to join the club. You could also be a puppy sitter, someone who would care for another person's puppy when they are unavailable (ex, during a sports event, classes, vacation, etc). Also, participate in any fundraisers and events the puppy club is planning for the academic year.