Niko may very well be more popular than any Big Man on Campus has ever been. He’s not that big, and he’s actually not a man, but this Labrador Retriever spends far more time in college classrooms than most students, and he is adored. Niko is trained as a service dog, and is a key member of the Professor Paws Project at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa. The goal of this program is to help students in the occupational therapy program, healthcare professionals and members of the community learn about service dogs.
The world of service dogs is filled with information that is not common knowledge. Because people are not aware of all the ways that service dogs can, well, be of service, many people are missing out on additional ways to live independently and in fully satisfying ways. More education is part of the solution.
Not very many people know all the ways that service dogs can help people with disabilities, or the proper etiquette to observe around a service dog. Fewer still are familiar with what protections the law offers to service dogs and their people. This lack of knowledge usually means that people may behave in ways that are annoying or unhelpful in the presence of a service dog. For occupational therapists, such gaps in their knowledge could mean doing their jobs less effectively. Service dogs are often underutilized in plans to help a person achieve independence and improve their higher quality of life. The Professor Paws Project at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa aims to change that. With Niko’s help, professors at OU-Tulsa are able to educate students about service dogs with practical, interactive hands-on experience and demonstrations.
By teaching students and other members of the community about service dogs, Niko helps reduce the barriers faced by people who need and work with service dogs every day, and that means that people’s lives are enhanced by the program. Over 500 people receive education each year through the Professor Paws Project, which was developed by Assistant Professor Mary Isaacson. To honor this contribution to the community, the City of Tulsa has just designated May 9, 2017 as “Professor Paws Day”. On that day, Niko will officially walk in the graduation ceremonies. (Think of it as Niko receiving his “Dog-torate”.)
Niko is not the first service dog to be involved with the education of occupational therapy students at OU-Tulsa. Before Isaacson trained Niko, she trained a service dog named Samson, and began incorporating him into her classroom instruction. Samson regularly attended classes, which allowed her to demonstrate the specific ways that a service dog can have an impact on a person’s daily life. Whether it is opening the fridge, retrieving dropped items, helping remove someone’s socks, or turning lights on and off, students were able to see what a difference such assistance can make to a person with a disability.
After training, Samson was placed with a high school student with cerebral palsy. That was 6 years ago, and now Samson lives on a college campus and continues to assist the same person. Having Samson participate in classes during his training and before his placement was so beneficial to students that people recognized the value of having a dog present on campus permanently.
As a result, the goal all along for Niko has been different than for Samson. Rather than being placed with someone as a service dog or working directly with patients, Niko will remain at OU-Tulsa in order to continue educating people about service dogs. As far as staff at the university know, the Professor Paws Project is the only program of its kind. However, its success suggests that this might not be true for long.
Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.