Like most students, Nelson comes to class ready to learn. Although lessons in chemistry and political science are hard to grasp, he is learning other important skills, including how to behave around people and obey commands. Nelson, a six-month-old black Labrador retriever, is training to be a service dog; his human, Eliot Goodman, is an environmental science and policy major.
Goodman is the first student at Montgomery College to volunteer with Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers, Inc. or SDWR. The organization trains dogs for people living with autism, diabetes, PTSD, and seizure disorders. Most of the volunteer puppy raisers are college students.
Abbie Richardson, puppy raiser coordinator for SDWR, says students make ideal trainers. “College students are exposed to many different environments—class, dining halls, sports events, meetings, walking across campus, the library—which is great for socialization of a dog. And many college students have roommates who can help out when things get busy.”
Goodman shares responsibility for Nelson with Maxine Turner, his girlfriend who attends the University of Maryland. Nelson spends a few days a week with each of them. Together, they are teaching the dog a series of commands and getting him used to the vest.
Goodman says most of his classmates love Nelson. “You will see all eyes on Nelson, and it is kind of nice to brighten people’s day.” And the dog is especially popular with his professors. “If I don’t have him with me, it’s ‘where’s Nelson, where’s Nelson?’” he says.
Dr. Anestine Theophile-LaFond, professor of communication studies, was one of Goodman’s professors during the spring semester. “Despite the initial surprise and nervous reaction by a few scholars, Eliot’s dog-in-training soon became just another class member,” she said.
Puppy raisers like Goodman and Turner typically train the puppy for nine to 18 months, according to Richardson. SDWR supplies almost everything the dog will need: crates, food, toys, medicine, etc. There is a required monthly training session, and students must provide weekly updates.
Eventually, the dog goes to live with a human in need. Both Turner and Goodman know the day they say goodbye to Nelson will be hard but appreciate that he will be a reliable companion for someone who needs help. Still, Goodman says when that day finally does come, he will have a box of tissues ready.
But for now Nelson is still a puppy—Turner says he eats everything—and there is a lot of work ahead for his two trainers.
“It is a 24/7 commitment. But I don’t mind at all. He’s my friend,” says Goodman.
Both Goodman and Turner agree, Nelson has changed things.
“It won’t end your social life, but it will shift it. If you like to go out and party, that won’t happen,” Goodman says. “But you will go out and walk your dog, and you will be surprised at the things you will see, and the people you will meet just having a dog.”
And Goodman has one last piece of advice for the humans in his life both in the community and on campus. “Nelson has an impact on everyone he meets—just get ready to fall in love.”