Photo of dog with trainer

Ask any Polar Paws member why they joined the organization, and you’ll hear similar responses: “I love dogs, and I love to help people.”

For Ohio Northern University students who want to pair both passions, Polar Paws is a perfect fit. A campus affiliate of the nonprofit organization 4 Paws for Ability, Polar Paws is a student organization that trains service dogs to help humans live better lives.

ONU students typically train service dogs that will be matched with either military veterans or children with disabilities, said Polar Paws president, Madyson Smith, a third-year pharmacy student.

“I’ve always loved dogs,” she said, “so when I heard about this club, I was instantly hooked. And then, when I learned more about what these dogs are trained for and how they help people, it hooked me even more.”

Madyson is training her second service dog since becoming an ONU student. Her first dog, Roosevelt, was paired with a family who has a child with autism. Her current dog, Harbor, is an 18-month-old Golden Retriever that she has been training for one year. She expects Harbor may soon be ready for her advanced training.

To become a primary trainer with 4 Paws for Ability, a student must undergo a rigorous application process and extensive training. Once approved, the student receives a puppy and is responsible for caring for, training, and socializing the puppy for approximately 6-18 months.

ONU handlers work on basic training with the puppy, explained Madyson, which includes teaching simple commands like “sit” and “leave it,” and working on the dog’s manners and socialization skills. A campus setting is ideal for socializing the pups because of the abundant opportunities to meet and mingle with humans during classes, sporting events, concerts, and meal times. 

After basic training, the dog can hopefully be “matched” with a human recipient, and then move on to advanced training to prepare the dog for the specifics of its new job. 4 Paws for Ability currently has a two-to-three-year waiting list for its service dogs, said Madyson.

While it can be hard to say good-bye to their dog, ONU student handlers are able to keep in touch with the dog and follow its progress through advanced training and beyond. “The big reward is seeing your dog with a family doing the work it was meant to do,” said Madyson.

Some Polar Paws members are secondary handlers, which means they assist the primary trainers on a day-to-day basis. Secondaries step in when the primary handler is busy for a few hours and needs someone to take over puppy care. 

At ONU, the Polar Paws primary and secondary trainers are a close-knit group, said Madyson, which makes the responsibility of training a puppy easier to handle, because you are not alone. “Definitely, raising these dogs takes a whole crew,” she said.

In fall 2023, ONU has eight service dogs and handlers on campus. Additionally, Polar Paws has 10 secondaries and approximately 20 general members who are going through the application process to become a handler.

“We’d like to see Polar Paws grow even more by getting more students involved,” said Madyson.