What has white fur, a black nose and walks on four legs? At Ohio Northern University, the answer to that question is usually “polar bear.” But if you ask it around campus lately, don’t be surprised if you hear “Viking” in response more often than not.
No, the newest member of the ONU family isn't a polar bear. He’s a 7-month-old golden retriever puppy named Viking. And, like the rest of his ONU brethren, he’s special.
Viking’s uniqueness comes from what he is and how he came to be here at ONU. While he may look like an ordinary run-of-the-mill puppy, Viking is actually a service animal in training. If all goes well, in the near future he may be paired with a disabled child to provide companionship and assistance with everyday tasks.
ONU juniors Lance Rice, a mechanical engineering major from Marion, Ohio; Matt Garrity, an accounting major from Springfield, Ohio; and Matt Stroh, a civil engineering major from Westlake, Ohio, are responsible for bringing Viking to campus. They are partnering with 4 Paws for Ability, an organization that specializes in placing service dogs into families with children with disabilities. The organization works with foster families, including college students, for the important socialization phase of a service dog’s training.
“Lance and the Matt came to me last spring and mentioned that they had a desire to work with this program and help families in need,” says Justin Courtney, director of residence life. “Anytime you get to see young people doing things that are really selfless and self-initiated, I think it is a powerful experience to be part of.”
With the University’s blessing, 4 Paws for Ability gave then 6-month-old Viking to Rice, Garrity and Stroh to raise in their residence hall, Northern House. On the surface, ONU’s all-male, first-year residence hall might not seem like the best environment for a puppy like Viking. After all, the primary goal of this part of the process is to socialize Viking so he will be calm and relaxed in a wide variety of settings.
“Historically, the temperament of Northern House has been a bit rowdy,” says Courtney. “So it’s cool to see them kind of change the culture there.”
Rice, Garrity and Stroh are required to walk Viking at least three times day and provide an hour of dedicated playtime where they closely observe how he is responding to different situations. While Viking is clearly learning the appropriate behavior, the three insist that they are puppy-raisers not puppy-trainers, and they credit Viking’s mellow nature for his easy acclimation to campus.
“Viking went to his first class and it was 45 minutes before the professor even noticed he was there. He was sleeping under the desks the whole time,” says Rice.
Viking is the only service animal on campus this fall. However, Rice, Garrity and Stroh would like to get more dogs next semester and hope to recruit other students to take on the responsibility, which Garrity knows can go well beyond initial expectations.
“I’m a junior, and normally I would not be in freshman housing,” he says. “I was actually set up to be in the apartments this year, but Lance approached me about this opportunity, and I thought this was a fantastic idea. I’ve loved dogs all of my life.”
After his socialization is complete, Viking will go on back to 4 Paws for Ability for more intense training to prepare him for the rest of his life as a service animal.
Cover photo: Viking snoozes beneath the desks during class.
“At the end of the semester, we have to give him back, and that’s not an easy thought to think about,” admits Stroh. “But, it’s going to be very nice and very rewarding just to see him possibly graduate through the program and help some small child who really needs him.”
After returning Viking to 4 Paws for Ability, Rice, Garrity and Stroh will not be able to see him again until he graduates from his service training. But when that day comes, Viking’s three foster fathers will be there to cheer him on and make sure his new family knows that their new pure-bred golden retriever has a little bit of polar bear in him.
Miranda Buschur, a freshman marketing major from St. Henry, Ohio, contributed to this story.