U’s FETCH program pairs students, trainer dogs

By Kathy Henderson

At the University of Minnesota, FETCH isn’t a command for a dog to retrieve a thrown object.

On the U’s Twin Cities campuses, FETCH stands for Fostering Education Through Campus Hosting. It’s a unique program where students volunteer for 14 weeks to serve as 24/7 hosts in helping train dogs slated to become guide companions for the New Hope-based Can Do Canines organization. The training period for the student volunteers takes place during their spring and fall semesters.

It’s more than having the dogs live with students in dorms or apartments. The training program also means the dogs accompany the students to classes, ride on the U’s bus system and on community outings to such places as the airport, Mall of America and Target.

The students and their dogs also attend twice-a-month training sessions at Bailey Hall on the U’s St. Paul campus that are led by Emily Hedenland, lead program trainer at Can Do Canines.

Besides attending training sessions at Bailey Hall, six students and their dogs live there in what is called a Learning Living Community, a dedicated area for the FETCH program residents within the five-story red brick building at 1450 Cleveland Ave. N.

The FETCH dogs range in age from 15 months to 2 years. When their time spent with the U students has concluded, the training for the dogs continues for about another year with other volunteers and at the New Hope kennel.

Ultimately, Can Do Canines’ goal is to provide a free, fully-trained assistance dog to a disabled person. Since it opened in 1989 under the original name of the Hearing Dog Program of Minnesota, the nonprofit organization has placed more than 900 assistance dogs with clients.

As spring semester was underway, three students talked about their experiences with the FETCH program: Emily Lynes, a Minnesota resident majoring in animal science; Audrey Miller, Ohio, chemical engineering; and Elle Stern, Wisconsin, animal science and pre-veterinary.

University of Minnesota students in the FETCH program, where participants provide 24/7 hosting and ongoing training for dogs slated to assist clients of Can Do Canines. Photo by Drew Henderson.

Q. Why did you volunteer for the FETCH program?

Emily Lynes: I volunteered for the FETCH program to explore the opportunities of training service dogs and for overall experience working with animals for upcoming pre-vet internships and jobs.

Audrey Miller: I had some friends who have participated in it, and they enjoyed it. I wanted to be able to experience what it was like to train an assistance dog, and it has been very rewarding to see the progress our dog Oaklee has made.

Elle Stern: I’ve always loved dogs and I didn’t know much about service animals or dog training, so I thought it would be an excellent place to learn about these things. It also feels really good to know I’m helping somebody else, who will one day have their life improved by the FETCH dogs I’m training.

Q. Can Do Canines’ assistance dogs must learn 30 cues. Which cue was the easiest to teach and is there one that you found more challenging than any others?

Emily: ‘Nudge’ was the easiest—and most fun—to do; the dogs have always enjoyed it! The most challenging is ‘step’ and ‘park.’ The dogs will sometimes confuse those cue words for other ones such as ‘n.’

Audry: Oaklee is very good at the ‘side’ and ‘heel’ commands. One of her toughest cues to learn is the automatic ‘leave it,’ where she is supposed to ignore distractions or food that is on the ground. She loves her food, so we work with her a lot on improving her focus when there is food distracting her.

Elle: I found the ‘get dressed’ command—which commands them to put on their cape and gentle leader/collar before we go out in public—to be the most challenging because most dogs don’t understand where the hole in their cape is that they need to put their head through, so they get confused and struggle to understand what they need to do.

The easiest cue to reinforce in my experience was ‘off,’ which commands them to get off a person or thing, like when they stand on their hind legs and push a person when greeting them, because whatever is making them excited—like a new guest in the dorm—often distracts them so much that they do not listen or register the command.

Q: Which community outing with your dog was your favorite?

Emily: Mall of America was my favorite trip so far, because of how much there is to explore—rides, bookstores, clothing stores.

Audrey: I enjoyed going to Mall of America with Oaklee because it was cool to see how she behaved in an extremely busy environment and to put her skills to the test in real-time. She did really well!

Elle: Mall of America, because the U universe was so incredibly different from campus or a store. The dogs were challenged with paying attention and seeing things they may not see regularly, such as new loud noises or small children.

Q: When you are at home with your pet, are you adapting any of the Can Do Canines training methods with your own pet?

Emily: I think there are definitely some cues and tricks that are beneficial for all dogs. I learned if you want your pet to get off furniture, the cue word is ‘off’ instead of ‘down.’ I had always used the word ‘down’ for my pet, and it wasn’t successful because in her mind she was cued to lay down. Ever since I used the cue ‘off,’ she is much better at getting off furniture.

Q: What habit do you have with your family pet that was hardest to change with the FETCH program dog you are training?

Emily: Taking the dogs for walks was probably one of the most challenging changes I had to make. Going from walking the dog a few times to going on walks every day.

Elle: We let our dog on furniture, so the hardest to change with the dog I’m training was training them not to go on furniture.

Q: Are you going to volunteer for the FETCH program again?

Audrey: I have really enjoyed participating in the FETCH program this year, and I hope I will be able to do it at least next spring!

Emily: Yes, I plan on doing it again.

Elle: Yes, I love the program and I’m extremely excited to be involved again having received the position as Community Advisor for the U’s FETCH Living Learning Community during the 2024-2025 school year.

I plan to be as involved as possible with FETCH through the position. 

Kathy Henderson is a regular freelance writer for the Bugle.

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