UNITY, MAINE — Last week, a Unity College classroom transformed into the (other) happiest place on earth for one very cute reason: puppies.
Ten wriggly puppies cavorted around the classroom, experimentally sniffing at things, getting cuddles and kibble from the students and, almost as if by accident, learning the foundations for some good behaviors that will serve them well in the future.
“They’ve been great,” Danii Roy, a captive wildlife care and education major from Gorham, said. “They’re really cute puppies. We’re getting them used to things, like textures, sounds, people, hats — things like that.”
The 9-week-old pitbull mix puppies charming the students in the animal training class came to Unity College through the Waterville Humane Society. But they were born in a central Maine home that would have been a difficult place for them to grow up.
“It was a hoarding situation,” Karen Knowlton, who works at the humane society, said. “There were a lot of animals in the house. A lot more than the people could care for.”
The family had a caseworker, and that person asked for help, which the humane society was able to provide. They took in the puppies and the puppies’ parents, but officials there didn’t want the puppies to spend long days in a kennel and worked with Unity College to find temporary foster homes for the puppies. They found those homes among campus faculty, staff and students who live off-campus. And although the puppies spent just a short time there, because they are likely to be ready for adoption this week, it was still helpful, Knowlton said.
“It was better for them than living in a kennel and waiting for adoption,” she said, adding that the dogs have had a wonderful experience at the college. “They’ve had a lot of one on one and group attention. They’re handled daily, exposed to new things, new smells — it’s great for them.”
Cheryl Frederick, an associate professor at the college and the chairperson for the captive wildlife care and education program, said the opportunity has been wonderful for her students, too. Through classes, students work with lots of different animals on the foundational elements of training and also on how to solve behavior management problems. Often, dogs that wind up in animal shelters exhibit some of those problems, she said.
“We’re trying to help the unadoptable get adopted, and it’s a great chance for students to practice what they learned in lecture.”
Normally, students head to Waterville during classes to work with adult dogs at the humane society. But the disruptive storm last week caused widespread power outages and travel difficulties, and also led to Plan B — working with the puppies.
“A lightbulb went off: ‘Wait a minute, we have all these puppies,’” Frederick said.
One things for students to learn is that puppies need a lot of stimulation.
“It’s really not ideal for puppies of that age to be in a low-stimulation environment, like a shelter,” she said. “When you’re this young, every day matters.”
That’s something student Brianna DeAngelis of Middletown, Connecticut, a senior captive wildlife care and education major, noticed first-hand. She and her roommate each fostered one of the puppies in their off-campus apartment, and she saw how the puppies changed during the week they spent with the students. Her puppy, Phish, started out “very nervous,” she said, but that didn’t last. Eventually she grew comfortable playing in the big backyard and spending time with their adult dog. She started sleeping through the night and fitting into the household, DeAngelis said.
“Phish is so smart,” she said. “I’m trying to get my family to adopt her. It was definitely a fun experience.”
The puppies will be ready to adopt as soon as they are spayed or neutered, and there is already quite a lot of interest from people eager to take one home, according to Knowlton. It’s helping that they are working with the Unity community and with dog trainer Breanna Norris of Pittsfield-based Canine Insights. On Friday, she came in to the class to help the students and the puppies learn positive reinforcement techniques.
“With positive reinforcement, we want to increase behaviors,” she said. “We’re not trying to take stuff away. We’re trying to add to their repertoire.”
Last Monday, during the first class with the puppies at the college, it was total chaos, Norris said.
“Most of them were hanging out under the tables. But as the week has progressed, they’ve started engaging with the students a lot.”
By Friday, that was obvious, as the puppies frolicked around the college students. The room contained a number of props — included a skateboard, a balance board and toys with different textures — that the puppies comfortably played with. They weren’t shy, either, about going up to the students for a sniff and a cuddle.
“We really want these puppies meeting lots of different types of people in a positive way,” Norris said. “They are little sponges right now.”
The benefits were mutual, Frederick said.
“The puppies needs are being wonderfully met,” she said. “I would argue that the students’ needs are being met, too. Puppies are a great de-stressor.”
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