College students training puppies to be service dogs


BLACKSBURG, Va., Oct. 7 – Puppy in Training: Meet Mylie – a five-month old chocolate Labrador Retriver in Virginia Tech’s SDWR college puppy raising program. Photo: Karli Gillespie

by Karli Gillespie–

This fall, non-profit organization Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers‘ (SDWR) outreach on Virginia Tech’s campus exploded after starting a service dog puppy raising program geared towards college students.

SDWR service dogs serve families and children with invisible diseases – such as autism, diabetes, post-traumatic stress disorder and also seizure response. Today, over 500 SDWR dogs have been placed in homes across the nation.

At the forefront of the college outreach program is Virginia Tech alumnae Abbie Richardson. Since graduating recently, Richardson works with SDWR as its Volunteer and Puppy Raising Coordinator.

“I started working with [SDWR] in June and from the beginning it was my main goal to reach out to Virginia Tech and other colleges to start programs for students to puppy raise,” Richardson said. “The program appeals so much to college students. When you want to have a dog at school, but you don’t know where you’ll be when you graduate? [This program] provides the perfect timeframe for a student to have one.”

SDWR volunteers foster puppies for nine to 18 months depending on the puppy’s behavioral progress. Puppy Raisers are responsible for socializing the dog and teaching general obedience skills such as such as walking on a leash and obeying basic commands like ‘sit.’  Unlike the non-profit organization’s national puppy raising program, the college SDWR programs provide increased financial support.

“SDWR provides the dog food for college students,” Richardson said. “The [recommended] dog food brand is expensive and we realize we’re dealing with college kids. We also provide a flea-and-tick collar, a crate, spay-neutering and vaccinations.”

Since June, Richardson has received over one hundred applications alone from Virginia Tech students volunteering to raise a puppy. Currently, 27 students and one professor are fostering puppies here in Blacksburg.

“The fact that I have placed all these dogs at Virginia Tech has made me very proud of what I have accomplished,” Richardson said. “Seeing students’ faces light up when they get the dog is the best. And while, in the end, they are helping someone with a disability, they get a lot of benefits from the program as well. I’m giving them a companion, a friend, someone to help de-stress them from class, or be [his or her] cuddle buddy when they are sad.”

Richardson plans to expand puppy raising programs to other colleges in the region. So far, she has placed dogs at Roanoke College, Wake Forest University, Loyola University, Penn State and is working hard to add more colleges to that list.

Grace Partridge is one of the 27 Virginia Tech students who applied for SWDR’s Puppy Raising Program. Mylie, a five-month-old chocolate Labrador Retriever, is the puppy Grace is fostering for the next year. Watch the video below to learn why Partridge chose to be a part of this special program and why she suggests it to other students.