The Columns

Paws-itive Presence on Campus Spanish professor Gwyn Campbell is training Winslow, a yellow Labrador retriever puppy, to be a service dog for someone in need.

— by on September 12th, 2016

“The students went gaga over Winslow, and everybody knew his name.”

W&L Spanish professor Gwyn Campbell and her trainee, WinslowW&L Spanish professor Gwyn Campbell and her trainee, Winslow

No matter where she goes on campus these days, Washington and Lee University professor Gwyn E. Campbell is met with adoration.

Campbell, who has taught Spanish at the university for 31 years, is a lovely person, to be sure. But she would be the first to admit that it’s the critter at the other end of the leash she holds who is garnering all the enthusiastic attention.

That fluffy blonde beast would be Winslow, a 6-month-old yellow Labrador retriever who is on the path to becoming a service dog for some lucky individual. Since Valentine’s Day, Campbell has been fostering Winslow for Saint Francis Service Dogs, a Roanoke-based non-profit that places professionally trained service dogs with individuals living with physical or mental disabilities — at no cost to the recipient. Saint Francis absorbs every penny of the estimated $25,000 required to train each dog.

So far, Winslow has spent time in Campbell’s Tucker Hall office and has accompanied her to class on several occasions. Connie Kniseley, manager of the Puppy Program at Saint Francis, says Campbell’s job at W&L was one factor that made her an ideal candidate to foster for their program.

“Gwyn has had dogs before and has a very good idea of what is required to raise a puppy,” Kniseley said. “She was given permission to bring the pup to work and has a crate in her office. What a wonderful experience for our Winslow!”

Dean of the College Suzanne Keen, who approved Winslow’s acceptance to W&L before Campbell first brought him to campus, agreed.

“What better place to train a service dog than a bustling, friendly campus?” she said. “When Professor Campbell brought Winslow to campus, I was delighted.”

As a kid growing up in Canada, Campbell said, “I was not allowed to have a pet of any kind. My father would not tolerate it — except fish.” When she got a job at W&L and moved to a rural location in Rockbridge County, her mother suggested that a dog would be a good protector and companion. Campbell has owned dogs ever since, until her last dog passed away four years ago.

Campbell knew it would be a while before she was ready to adopt again — she is nearing retirement and eventually plans to move back to Canada. When she learned about fostering a service dog, which requires a commitment of up to 18 months only, she thought it could be a good fit.

“I thought, ‘Well, a service dog would work well.’ It would be a real gift to somebody, and the dog could come with me everywhere,” she said. “And that, in fact, is the case.”

Winslow was 2 months old when he came to live with Campbell. Although most yellow Labs are short-haired, a recessive gene resulted in long hair on Winslow and two other pups in his litter. Their luscious locks barred them from being show dogs, so they were donated to Saint Francis.

Because his breeders are big fans of the Eagles, and the musical group’s co-founder Glenn Frey had just passed away, they asked that the pups’ names have some connection to the band. As Campbell pondered a name, that famous line came to mind: “Well, I’m a-standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona / Such a fine sight to see / It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flat-bed Ford / Slowing down to take a look at me.” After deciding on the name, Campbell was surprised to learn that part of Winslow’s registered name includes the title of that very song, “Take it Easy.” It was meant to be — and plenty of girls would soon be slowing down to take a look at Winslow.

During the first three months of his time with Campbell, Winslow’s need to be socialized allowed him to be petted often. Students were happy to help with that process, whether Campbell and her charge were in the classroom, having office hours or touring campus.

“The students went gaga over Winslow, and everybody knew his name,” Campbell said. “Often, students would approach me as I was on my way to the office.”

Now that the pup is older, Campbell is the only person who is allowed to give him affection. That’s because, as a service dog, he is supposed to be committed to a specific person. Affection can also interfere with his training and distract him from important commands. Once he is placed with a human partner, that person will be the only one allowed to pet him and snuggle with him.

At this phase of his training, Winslow attends a weekly class in Roanoke and is learning as many commands as possible. At just 6 months of age, he already knows more than 20 commands, including sit, settle, down, stand, wait, eat, park (go to the bathroom), get it, find it, catch, release and off.

“As for his training, he is right on par with where he should be,” Kniseley said. “He has shown a bit of a stubborn streak that I hope starts to disappear as he matures.”

Winslow has not had much trouble complying with the “eat” command. “Apparently, Labs are notorious for wolfing down food, so he has to have a puzzle eater that has four ridges in the plastic bowl so he has to kind of nose in and get at the food,” Campbell said. “His trick is to just take the bowl and dump it out. He is not a stupid doggie.”

At times, Campbell has had to travel and was unable to take Winslow along. In those cases, he was sent to prison — the Bland Correctional Center, to be exact, where inmates in the Prison Pup Program make sure puppies stay on schedule with their training. The program is also a morale-booster for those inmates, who work hard to earn and keep the privilege of participating in the program.

When Winslow is ready to move on to the next stage of training, he will leave Campbell’s care and begin working with an advanced trainer. At that point, he will learn tasks that will help his future partner, such as picking up items, carrying things, and opening doors.

If all goes well, at age 2 to 2½, Winslow will finally meet his partner. Saint Francis places 10 to 15 service dogs per year in its service area, which includes Roanoke and surrounding areas.

There is a chance that somewhere along the way, Winslow will fail out of the program. Only about 50 percent of the dogs that enter service dog training will graduate. For example, Winslow’s sister is exhibiting signs of motion sickness, a problem that will make it impossible for her to be a service dog. If Winslow fails out, Campbell may be allowed to adopt him permanently.

For now, however, the pup is doing brilliantly, and although Campbell enjoys keeping him and working with him, she is preparing herself for the fact that she will have to give him up. “I know that he is not my dog,” she said. At those times when she returned from a trip to pick him up, “he was happy enough but he was fine where he was, so I think he knows that I am not his forever person.”

Campbell said being a foster mom to a service dog-in-training has been a lot more work than she expected, but she has enjoyed watching him grow and interact with the W&L community. He will still be around campus to enjoy the attention when fall term arrives.

“He is going to give somebody an incredible quality of life,” Campbell said, “and that’s going to make everything worthwhile for me.”

St. Francis Service Dog FAQs

Puppy Program manager Connie Kniseley answered a few more questions about the work they do at St. Francis.

How many dogs are in the “puppy raising” stage at any given time?
Approximately 25 to 30. The majority are in Bland Correctional with inmates.

How many are in the training stage at any given time?
Approximately 12 to 15.

What breeds of dogs are used as service dogs?
We generally use Labrador retrievers. We have some golden retrievers, as well. We have used a handful of other breeds including poodles, poodle mixes, Lab/golden mixes, Aussies, Border collies, Belgium Tervuren, and even a German shorthair pointer. Most of our dogs come from breeders. We get a few pups each year from a breeding cooperative consisting of other service dog organizations. We have had some that came from the pound and rescue organizations.

Are puppies designated as service dogs, veteran dogs, facility dogs, etc., from the moment they enter the program, or are those decisions made later in the training process?
All of our pups are raised the same way and taught the same things. As they go into formal training, it becomes more evident what their strengths and weaknesses are. Once they pass their final test, they begin what we call the interview process. We look at their strengths and see how they might match best with our candidates (people or facilities that have been approved and are waiting for a dog). Each dog will interview with several different candidates. The dog will often tell us which one is the best fit for them.