Tails of Love

(Photo by Duane Zehr)

By Matt Hawkins
April 11, 2014

Thanks to the vision of Bradley alumni Michelle (Kosner) Yuen ’09 and Brandi Arnold ‘10, humans share the Hilltop’s learning environment with a friendly pack of service dogs in training. Paws Giving Independence, with the help of Bradley student organization Wags For Mags, has trained more than 50 service dogs in six years.

Yuen and Arnold founded the nonprofit PGI in 2008 to train service dogs. Wags For Mags launched in 2012 to involve students with the training process. PGI fills a void as the region’s lone service dog trainer while Wags For Mags is one of the few student-led training programs.

In addition to assisting people with disabilities, PGI helps the region by adopting most of its dogs from central Illinois animal shelters.

“It's one of the best-kept secrets in Peoria that we have a service dog organization started from scratch,” said organization faculty adviser Dr. Stacie Bertram. “It's neat to see the dogs blossom in this environment, know they go on to serve families with disabilities and it's nice to have Bradley be a part of that.”

Wags For Mags is named in memory of Bertram’s daughter, Maggie, who died in a car accident in March 2012. Maggie was a longtime volunteer of PGI and trained a service dog named Marley.

Student trainers and their dogs are common on campus as administration has allowed dogs access to most spaces, including dorms. Additionally, Wags For Mags partners with Bradley’s Foster College of Business and the Physical Therapy & Health Science department to train dogs.

This offers broad educations for both animals and humans.

“It’s good for campus because we’re exposing the students to service dogs that will be paired with a person with disabilities,” Yuen said. “It brings diversity to campus and it’s good for dogs because they need to learn to sit through class, in restaurants, sports and how to behave at activities on the quad.”

Bradley students participate as trainers or volunteers for dogs that live with foster owners. Volunteers work with dogs at twice-monthly training sessions on campus. Trainers take dogs during the day several times a week for on-campus experiences.

As trainers have learned, their four-legged friends attract rock-star attention on the Hilltop. Because of that attention, humans have learned as much about social settings as dogs.

“I’m shy, so it gives me an opportunity to get out of my bubble and talk to people,” said Kirsten Zeman ’15.

Working with dogs for several months often allows trainers to meet the animals’ eventual adoptees. That final destination keeps trainers motivated to mold dogs into reliable helpers.

“It’s really rewarding to see the work we do go to someone who needs it,” said Jessica Rooney ‘14. “It’s exciting because it’s going to change their life.”

One of those recipients, the Rev. Kristie Peterson of First United Presbyterian Church of Pekin, received her dog Lena last year. Lena serves as a partial sight, balance and blood sugar alert dog for Peterson, who is legally blind and diabetic. Lena also is a valuable asset during Peterson’s visits to hospitals and nursing homes.

“She could easily be cross-certified as a therapy dog,” Peterson said. “When we do hospital visits, the staff spend as much time with her as patients. I get staff and families asking if I’ll come to their room because they think it will be good for patients.”

Peterson’s story is one of the many students hear as they work with their canine charges in Peoria. Those stories reaffirm the students’ impact on the community.

“One of the most rewarding things is when people come up on campus or someone tells me they met a great dog at Starbuck’s,” said Wags For Mags President Melissa Hegg ‘14. “It’s rewarding that we’re helping so many people.”

PGI’s founders recognized those stories wouldn’t be possible without their alma mater.

“Bradley was integral in the startup of PGI and we are very grateful for their support,” Yuen said.