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Upper School News & Stories

Senior Project: Training Service Dogs
Posted 05/11/2015 10:13AM

There’s a lot for a dog to love at Riverdale in the spring: squirrels, birds, Frisbees, balls, kids who want to run and play on the Quad.

Goldie, an 18-month-old golden retriever, is no exception. She loves being outside too. But an important job awaits her, one that requires extraordinary self-control, social and emotional intelligence, and focus.

Goldie is training to be a service dog with Jenn Berger, a Riverdale senior and certified service-dog trainer. For her month-long senior independent project, Jenn is training service dogs on the Hill Campus, teaching them to remain calm in a noisy and hectic environment and studying different training methods.

This year, there are 15 seniors pursuing independent projects that range from furniture making and short story writing to explorations of voice recognition technology, solar power, the ethics of computer viruses, and Internet radio. They are required to write a 1,000-word academic paper, keep a daily journal, make a 20-minute oral presentation to the community and write a reflection on their outcomes and experience.

As part of Jenn's project, she is investigating training for the specialized work that the service dogs perform. They work with a variety of clients: people with physical disabilities, children with autism, veterans with post traumatic stress disorder, people who suffer from sleep apnea. Some dogs work in institutional environments, such as nursing homes and hospitals. They are not trained to be guide dogs for visually impaired people.

The dogs learn more than 80 commands, and Jenn assesses their personalities to determine the best placement for them. In Goldie’s case, it will be someone with a physical disability.

“She is very intelligent,” Jenn said. “She is very good with the skills and commands. She knows what to do.” Goldie’s challenge: “She is very, very affectionate. She loves to be petted.” Students approach her and want to talk to her and pet her and she has to hold back.

Jenn began working with the Westchester-based organization, Educated Canines Assisting with Disabilities (ECAD), five years ago when her mother, who is wheelchair-bound, received a service dog. Jenn started volunteering at CAD on Fridays, feeding and grooming the dogs. The next year she became a “home handler,” taking dogs for weekends as they were preparing for their placements. The summer before 10th grade, she became a certified service dog trainer, the youngest person at her organization to go through the program.

Dr. Kelley Nicholson-Flynn, the Head of the Upper School, is Jenn's advisor.

“Many students see things that need addressing in our world and ask, ‘What can I do?’  Jenn's work with ECAD is a terrific model of service in the community,” Dr. Nicholson-Flynn said. “I was delighted to be her advisor, because I have a personal interest and affirmation for service animal programs.  My sister is blind and has been supported by a guide dog for the past 15 years. I've always appreciated the work that goes into training a service animal, but seeing it on a daily basis on campus makes me appreciate it that much more.”

Jenn is a three-sport varsity athlete – tennis, basketball, and lacrosse – who also loves horseback riding. She will be attending Tulane University in the fall.

While she doesn’t have specific career aspirations yet, there is no doubt that working with the dogs will be a lifelong avocation. “They have the most amazing personalities,” she said. “I’ve seen where the dogs go, and the bonds that are created there. It makes everything worthwhile.”

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