Evans founds service dog program for disabled community

The service dog training program, initiated this fall to provide trained dogs for disabled individuals, is proving successful.

Bridget Evans, founder of the program at the University and senior in AHS, said the three service dogs on campus are learning basic commands, in conjunction with more advanced skills, such as turning on and off the lights, pulling down zippers, opening doors and picking up items.

“They’ve accomplished so much in the short time they’ve been here,” she said. “It all adds up to be a great service dog.”

Evans said the program received support from University administration and from the College of Veterinary Medicine.

With 21 student handlers of the service dogs, there is one primary student handler who houses one of the dogs for the majority of the time. Also for each dog, there are six secondary student handlers who work with the dog in different environments for two hours at a time. The secondary handlers may bring the dog back to their own apartments, to class or to various public places, she added.

“The big accomplishment is what the students have done with the dogs so far,” Evans said. “I just helped put the pieces together.”

She said the dogs will graduate in December 2011 where they will be paired up with someone with a disability and given transition training by MidAmerica Service Dogs’ Foundation Inc. trainers.

Noel King, president of MidAmerica Service Dogs’ Foundation Inc., said the organization provides service dogs to people within the local area and is teamed up with the program at the University.

“She (Evans) has done nothing but inspire me for the program to grow. It was a blessing in disguise. It was absolutely a blessing,” King said. “I can’t even begin to thank them (the University students who are part of the program) for the work they’re doing.”

Evans said she has made her mark at the University, resulting in a sense of pride from her accomplishments with the program.

“It’s given me a sense of empowerment. A lot of people say you come to the University of Illinois and it’s hard to get recognized,” Evans said. “Everybody can make an impact ... makes you feel like you can do anything.”

She added that she has heard from the student handlers about how positive the program is for them. Student handlers work well together because there is a larger purpose they are all working towards, she said.

“It’s not just for a grade; it’s not just for something to do,” Evans said. “This is making an impact.”

Kyle Mueller, student handler and sophomore in AHS, said there is a lot of support for the program on campus.

“I thought it was such a good idea that I wanted to be a handler,” Mueller said. “Things keep getting better and better.”

She said she would like the program to grow to include more service dogs to be trained and more students across disciplines at the University to be involved.

“We love educating people. We love spreading awareness,” Evans said. “We love bragging about our dogs and what they can do.”