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Rutgers companion animal club trains assistants for humans in need

<p>The Companion Animal Club is working to increase awareness of companion animals that aid people with disabilities.&nbsp;</p>

The Companion Animal Club is working to increase awareness of companion animals that aid people with disabilities. 

While many people are familiar with seeing-eye dogs, fewer know about other companion animals, a fact that the Companion Animal Club is working to change as they train furry assistants to aid people with disabilities.

The club brings together students to educate people interested in learning more about companion animals and the services they provide, according to the group's website.

Carrie Ruge, president of the Companion Animal Club and a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences senior, said when she joined it was originally just for students who had general interest in companion animals. At that time, the club's only activities were shelter visits.

All of that changed when she met Janice Wolfe, founder of Merlin's Kids, an organization that rescues and rehabilitates shelter dogs to become service animals for people in need. Since then, the club has partnered with Merlin's Kids.

“I started working with her, and we were able to integrate the Merlin’s Kids service dog training program on the campus to the club,” Ruge said.

Ruge has been training a Rhodesian ridgeback named Siri to be a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) service dog for more than one year now. Siri was also the first dog the club got on campus.

Claressa Lopez, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences sophomore and activities coordinator for the club, said she became interested in the club because she shared common interests and goals with the club's members.

Lopez is training a 1-year-old golden retriever/poodle mix named Teddy Bear. The foster dog lives with Lopez on campus and travels with her to public places, including Lopez's classes.

“He is my foster, he lives with me on campus in my apartment," Lopez said. "I kind of take care of him 24/7 for the most part ... If I have a class he can’t go to, he’s sat by another club member.”

Nicole Sadori, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences sophomore, studies companion animal science and is one of the members that takes care of dogs when others cannot, including Teddy Bear and a Mastiff mix named Samuel.

“Me and Samuel bonded very much,” Sadori said. “It was so hard having to give him back.”

Members start off as sitters and take care of dogs when their owner is not available. In order to be a foster for a dog in the club, members have go into the foster program through Merlin's Kids. The organization trains the aspiring fosters and supplies the dogs and their food, Lopez said.

During the training, students attend weekly lectures and study from a book, Lopez said. They learn the basics of training a dog— learning how to make a dog sit, lie down and be calm in public.

One of club's main goals is to have the dogs to think for themselves and know when they have to do certain things. The dogs are trained to know when to sit, lie down and stay calm, she said.

This organization is meant for people who want a dog for their specific needs, Ruge said.

Dogs are assigned to all types of people in need, Lopez said.

“The dogs are ... trained for calming people down,” she said. “We have dogs for PTSD specifically, if the person is having night terrors their, cortisol levels will increase, so a dog will smell it and wake the person up before they have the attack.”

The dogs help treat illnesses other than PTSD, including autism, she said. There are also dogs being trained to sniff out cancer cells.

The difficulty of training a companion is making sure their personalities fit for the specialty they are assigned to, she said. Aggressive dogs can be a problem, but they can be rehabilitated by the Merlin's Kids organization.

Service dogs have had an impact on people’s lives, Ruge said. A lot of people can benefit from service dogs but they are not aware of them.

The dogs are still up and coming and are not used as much as they should be, she said.

“You can have other types of service dogs. People are used to seeing the seeing-eye dogs on campus and everyone just assumes that’s only type of service dog you can have," she said. "There are so many different people with plenty of disabilities that service dogs can all help.”

Christopher Bohorquez is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore. He is a staff writer for The Daily Targum. See more on Twitter @c_bo_sauce.

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