Friday, 14 December 2018
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A day in the life of a service animal

Alya begins her day just like any other University of Cincinnati student — she wakes up, eats breakfast and heads to class. When she gets home, Alya eats lunch and takes a nap before enjoying the rest of her day.

But Alya is not a normal college student. She is a 6-month-old service dog in training, and wherever she goes, smiles are bound to follow.

Alya and her handler, fourth-year neurology student Olivia Mullins, are a duo that are easy to spot on UC’s uptown campus.

Alya is Mullins’ third service dog. Although Mullins’ previous two dogs failed the program, they were adopted and placed with loving families. Mullins said she feels confident that Alya will make it through the training process and become an official service animal.

Mullins is a founding member and president of 4 Paws for Ability at UC, and she has seen firsthand the difference that service animals make.

“The dogs affect people’s lives like you don’t even know,” Mullins said. “They’re lifesaving.”

Mullins co-founded 4 Paws for Ability at UC with help from Meghan King, Skyler Wilson and Dr. Ralph Brueggemann, an adjunct professor who teaches online for UC’s Master of Business Administration program.

Brueggemann is on the board of directors at 4 Paws for Ability, and he also chairs the Operations Committee. Brueggemann became involved with the organization after his family socialized three service dogs, two of which became service animals.

Brueggemann is passionate about the work 4 Paws does and knows the difference it can make in the lives of children with developmental disabilities.

“The most rewarding experience is when you attend the graduation ceremony at the end of the process. The child bonds with the dog at the graduation ceremony, and it’s very emotional,” said Brueggemann. “That’s where you go to see the impact. That’s where you find out the value that you’re providing.”

People cheer up when they see Alya. Students’ days are brightened when she sits down in class, strolls across campus or hangs out with Mullins as she studies at the library. Alya, as well as the 12 other service dogs in training at UC, can make a bad week better almost instantly.

The training to become a service dog is very rigorous — just 50 percent of dogs make it through the process. UC students involved with 4 Paws understand the strict requirements of training but continue to accept the challenge.

Mullins has been working with Alya since she was 10 weeks old to teach her basic obedience, house manners and socialization. When Alya reaches 1 year old, she will return to the 4 Paws headquarters in Xenia, Ohio, for advanced training.

Although it will be hard for Mullins to say goodbye to her dog, she knows Alya will make a positive impact on a child’s life.

“It’s horrible to part with the dogs,” she said. “It’s literally like a breakup: I eat pizza and ice cream … But it’s definitely worth it.”

Founded by Karen Shirk in 1998, 4 Paws for Ability is a nonprofit organization that aims to enrich the lives of children with disabilities by placing service animals with their families.

Shirk founded 4 Paws after her personal struggle to receive a service dog ended in rejection. Now that Shirk’s dream is a reality, she sees that service animals can have a drastic impact on a child’s life.

Jenka Conrad and her family live outside of Cincinnati in Florence, Kentucky. Their youngest daughter, Leah, 8, has epilepsy and suffers from multiple types of seizures.

When Leah was matched with a service dog through 4 Paws for Ability, her entire life changed for the better. Jenka said Leah and her service dog, Ramsey, are two sides to the same coin.

When Leah is gloomy, Ramsey is down in the dumps. When Leah is happy, Ramsey lights up next to her. Jenka sees the difference Ramsey makes in her daughter — she’s more confident in herself, talks to new people and has become a “social butterfly” at school.

Before Ramsey, Leah was extremely shy, Jenka said. “Leah wouldn’t talk to anyone that wasn’t mom or dad,” she said. “No way she was talking to someone new.”

Now, thanks to Ramsey, Leah is the opposite. She’s actively involved in Girl Scouts and has made “lifelong friends” at school, her mom said.

Ramsey helps Leah’s classmates see her as a friend, a playmate, a dreamer and a doer. They see her as a person instead of focusing on her condition.

“The kids don’t even speak to Ramsey,” Jenka said. “They talk to Leah and give her hugs. The self-esteem boosting that he provides isn’t something you would think you’d get out of a service dog, but we have.”

But Ramsey doesn’t just provide Leah with emotional support. He’s also trained as a sensory seizure dog, which means he can sense Leah’s seizures hours before they happen.

Before Ramsey was placed with the Conrad family, Leah would have three seizures a day. Now, Leah’s seizures have dropped in frequency, and she experiences longer periods with no seizure activity.

“I don’t even want to know what our life would be like without Ramsey,” Jenka said. “We’ve gotten to the point where we almost forget Leah has epilepsy.”

Having that kind of impact is why Mullins and other members of the 4 Paws organization are so devoted to training their dog partners.

Though Mullins and Alya will have to part ways sometime in the next year, Mullins knows Alya will be able to change someone’s life — just as all the other 4 Paws for Ability service animals have done before her.

“I’m doing this to seriously help someone someday,” Mullins said.


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