Illini Service Dogs give students brief pet companionships

By Isabella Jackson

Bringing up a young dog is an investment in the future. 

Owners expect the hours spent training, housebreaking and cleaning up after a puppy to pay off with years of companionship as both dog and owner age.

But Art Connolley’s relationship with Busey, a black Schnauzer-Labrador mix, is different. Busey is one of the service dogs in training through the Illini Service Dogs registered student organization. Although Busey is currently being raised by Connolley, her primary handler, she will go to work for a student with disabilities when she is fully trained.

Kendall Cox, current president of Illini Service Dogs and senior in Engineering, said that all of the handlers know that they will have to say goodbye to the dogs they have worked so hard to train. 

“It’s obviously sad when they leave, but knowing that the dog is going to go off and do something great is what makes it worth it,” he said. “It’s something to lean back on– the knowledge that they are going to really make someone’s life better.”

Cox said he knows how hard it is to have to say goodbye to a dog. He served as both a secondary and primary handler for Blue, a Yellow Laborador Retriever, who graduated last May. 

Seeing Blue progress and learn new skills helped with the transition, because he said he knew that it was for a good cause, but giving him up was difficult.

“It was a sad day. There were tears of happiness, tears of sadness from everyone on the team,” he said.

Connolley, senior in LAS, has been a member of the club for two years, since Cox encouraged him to join. Connolley took on the responsibility of becoming Busey’s primary handler last spring when Busey was six months old. 

Coordinating a team effort

He isn’t alone in preparing Busey for work as a service dog though. Each dog’s training is divided between the primary caretaker and secondary handlers — in Busey’s case, six. After two years, each Illini service dog “graduates” before being placed with a permanent owner. 

“A secondary will only take the dog maybe once or twice a week for a few hours. They’ll mainly do a lot more focused training. For me, … it’s more just daily tasks,” he said. “I’ll have her do sit and stay at intersections, or if I drop something I’ll have her do ‘Take it’ to pick it up for me.”

Elana Shyman, junior in Education, is one of the team’s secondary handlers. She said that the whole team must be willing to put in time with Busey if something comes up in Connolley’s schedule. 

Each secondary handler generally spends two to four hours a week in training sessions with Busey. The rest of the time, the dog lives with Connolley.

“By having multiple trainers, the dogs don’t just get used to one person. They have the ability to work with multiple people,” Connolley said.

In training Busey, the team first went through basic commands, such as teaching her how to sit and stay. After those, the commands gradually became more difficult.

“We’re working her into more advanced commands like turning lights on and off now,” Connolley said, “She just got that one. That was really fun.” 

In the future, Busey will learn commands critical to her work with students with disabilities, such as being able to help a fallen person get up off the ground.  

“Our dogs are (trained) specifically for those with physical disabilities just because that’s the resources that we have,” Shyman said. 

Finding a good match

Connolley is used to being around dogs at home; however, having a family dog is very different from raising one at college. Adopting Busey was a big lifestyle change, Connelly said. 

“Before, I could do whatever I want. I could go right from class to hanging out with friends. Now that I’ve got a dog, I’ve got to worry about her and make sure I’m not out too long,” he said. 

Training a service dog even impacts where he can live, he said. Connolley listed JSM Apartments and Roland Realty, which is where he currently lives, as two of the most accommodating apartment companies for people with pets. 

Busey is not just a commitment during Connolley’s time on campus. The affectionate dog also makes an excellent companion, he said.

“I didn’t go home this summer; I stayed here, so it was nice having company then,” he said.

Beyond the training, Busey is also a source of entertainment throughout Connolley’s and the team’s school week. 

“Everyone’s favorite thing about Busey is that she’ll try to be sneaky. She’ll be on the ground and try to army crawl under things,” Connolley said, “If she gets something she’s not supposed to have, she’ll hide it under her paw and look at you like she doesn’t have anything.”

Shyman also describes Busey as having a sweet temperament, always looking for someone to play with. 

“If you’re just sitting down, she’ll take a paw and plop it on you,” Connolley said. “She’s very friendly.” 

Working with Busey and the rest of the club has brought the team together as well, according to Connolley.

“My favorite part of training is getting to know all the people. Everyone there loves the dogs and is there for a great purpose,” Shyman said.

Cox said that the team members also provide support for each other when it is time to give up the dogs. 

“It’s nice to have a group, because you know they are going through the same thing,” he said.

Shyman said that when any of the dogs graduate, it is rewarding for everyone in the club to see their hard work going to a great cause. 

“The people that they were being placed with were so grateful and just had smiles on their faces,” she said, “I’m excited to see more dogs graduate.” 

Connolley said that Busey has about one more year of training before she is ready to graduate. However, Connolley will graduate from the University before Busey is finished. 

“Over the next semester, we will begin to transition her to another primary so that they can finish training her to be a service dog,” he wrote in an email. 

Connelly said he is enjoying the time that he has left with Busey. Cox said Busey’s and Connolley’s personalities match well together. 

“It will be pretty difficult when the time comes,” Connolley wrote in an email. “But I know she will be in good hands when I have to hand her off. I’ve been sort of preparing since the start as I knew from the get-go I would have to give her up in the end. But it helps to know she will be doing something really amazing and making a difference in someone’s life.”

Isabella can be reached at [email protected].