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Bradley Hilltopics

Summer 2009 • Volume 15, Issue 3  

Campus View

Rescued dogs have a new purpose

By Nancy Ridgeway

MICHELLE KOSNER ’09 trains Muggs, a yellow lab mix, to press an accessible door button. Photo by Duane Zehr.


“Save a life to change a life” is the motto behind a new organization at Bradley that has tails wagging and people living more independent lives.

BRANDI ARNOLD ’10, MICHELLE KOSNER ’09, and ERIC SWANSON ’09 founded Paws Giving Independence, a group that rescues dogs from animal shelters and trains them to become service dogs for individuals with disabilities. Arnold and Kosner had volunteered at a similar organization in the Chicago area and decided to start one in Peoria. They recruited Swanson, a friend and business major who shepherded the process of gaining not-for-profit status while they worked out other logistics.

Service dog and teenaged owner

Riley, a service dog trained last year by two Bradley students, is shown with his new owner, Jason. The students decided to form a Bradley group after training Riley through a similar Chicago area organization. Photo by MICHELLE KOSNER ’09.

service dog training

BRANDI ARNOLD ’10 teaches Muggs to retrieve a remote control.

Service dog training

ERIC SWANSON ’09 assists Naomi Hardesty, a high school student from East Peoria, as she learns to work with her service dog, a poodle named Sasha.


Six animal rescue organizations contact Arnold and Kosner when they have a dog that might work for the program. The pair does extensive temperament testing before accepting the dog. It is then placed with a foster family for about six to eight months; a Bradley student volunteer is paired with each foster family.

Most of the eight foster families currently in the program have Bradley ties. Among the three professors acting as foster parents is Dr. Stacie Bertram, assistant professor of physical therapy and faculty adviser for the group. “I was only going to advise the group,” Bertram said at a recent training session with her 11-year-old daughter Ruthie and their foster dog, a golden retriever puppy named Marley.

The foster families, student volunteers, and dogs attend weekly training sessions led by Arnold, Kosner, and Swanson at the Markin Family Student Recreation Center. The dogs learn tasks such as opening doors, turning on lights, and retrieving items. They go home each week with homework.

Dogs must learn to behave appropriately in public settings, as they will be with their new masters 24/7 when they are placed permanently. Student volunteers frequently bring the dogs to their Bradley classes, and families are instructed to bring the dogs along on outings.

“The dogs have to learn to not eat popcorn off the floor at the movie theater,” Arnold said. “They have to get used to distractions, to going to restaurants, and to other public places.”

The students hope to place the first canine graduates this summer. They have a waiting list of people interested in receiving dogs. Dogs and new owners will be paired considering variables such as how active the person and dog are, if the dog needs to retrieve, and if the dog is good around wheelchairs.

The organization places the dogs at no charge. Dogs unable to pass the public access test are still good companion pets, and the students hope to place them with children who have autism or Down syndrome.

Paws Giving Independence placed third in the Project Springboard competition at Bradley in April. See NoteBook. Visit to apply for a service dog or to become a foster family.