Yellow Caped Raiders is a student organization at Texas Tech that focuses on fostering and training puppies with the hope of getting the dogs adopted as assistance animals. The organization is part of Canine Companions for Independence. The two work together to provide fully trained animals to those who need assistance.
Viktoria Haynes, a junior microbiology major from Boerne and student organization representative, said her organization receives puppies when they are about eight weeks old.
“So, we do that kind of, like, first part of getting the little eight-week-old puppies that barely know their name and turn them into dogs that are ready to start learning tasks to be with their future person,” she said.
Yellow Caped Raiders has three dogs in training: Bleu II, Lionel IV and Mikuni. Haynes said a fourth puppy, a yellow female, will join the organization on Friday.
Haynes’ job as a puppy raiser involves preparing a puppy for its future person, but after training the animal, Haynes said the organization sends the dog off to participate in six months of professional training.
“We raise them for about 18 months,” she said. “We teach them 30-ish commands during that time and we take them on outings, they attend class with us and we kind of prepare them for their future role as an assistance dog.”
Members will take puppies to train in real-life scenarios, such as visiting rehabilitation centers and nursing homes in Lubbock, as well as more formal training scenarios, Haynes said.
“So, we also invite all of our students to come out to those things, and then we hold, separate from that, we do hold our full training two times a month, and we’ll invite our students out to those, especially those who are wanting to raise,” Haynes said.
People who want to join the organization but do not want to raise a puppy are welcome to join and participate in events, which Haynes said is helpful for training the puppies.
“They also hang out with us in the free speech area, and it’s great for our dogs to practice being handled by other people,” she said. “So at the end of our meetings, typically we’ll do some puppy games where we’ll allow our members to actually handle the dogs, practice a couple of commands — it’s really great training for our dogs to be able to listen to anyone who has the leash.”
There are five types of assistance dogs Haynes said the puppies can become. There are service dogs for those who have physical disabilities, hearing dogs for people who have hearing impairments and facility dogs that go into areas such as hospitals, court rooms and rehabilitation centers; these dogs differ from therapy dogs in how they are trained. Facility dogs can play games, such as soccer, and some can even “practice” taking medication to encourage hospital patients to do the same.
Additionally, there are skilled companions meant for those with developmental disabilities such as Downs Syndrome or Autism. These dogs will have a handler, who is the person with the disability, and a facilitator, typically the person’s guardian, who has control of the leash. Lastly, there are PTSD dogs for veterans. These dogs may also act as service dogs depending on the physical needs of the veteran.
Not all puppies that are raised with the intention of becoming assistance animals have what it takes to be an assistance dog, Haynes said.
“The graduation rate is about 60 percent, actually, from the puppies who are placed with us to those who graduate, it’s about 60 percent of dogs,” she said.
Dogs that are not fit for the job are first offered back to their puppy raisers. If the puppy raiser does not take the dog, Haynes said it is then offered to someone on the Canine Companions waitlist, such as a donor.
“And so, the dogs typically wind up in a very loving home if they are released and do not go back to the puppy raiser,” she said.
Raising a puppy, even for a limited time, can be expensive, and Haynes said members of the organization pay for vet bills, treats, toys and other goods out-of-pocket.
“The service dogs are placed completely free of charge to whoever they wind up being placed with, the graduate, so all of puppy raising is volunteer work,” she said. “In order for them to be able to place the dogs free of charge to those who have a disability, we do our part by volunteering and paying for our dogs.”
Veterinarians and community members contribute both fiscally and by providing goods, but Haynes said there is still a fee, so members of the organization discuss finances during monthly meetings and fundraise when needed.
“So, we do fundraising; we’ll go over our dogs and then we do a lot of outreach and a lot of education,” she said. “That’s really important to us, is teaching about service dog etiquette, about the Americans with Disabilities Act, things like that.”
Education is important, as Haynes said puppy raisers have faced stigma and roadblocks due to the actions of others.
“We’ve gotten a lot of pushback from different places around Lubbock and even everywhere across the state and everywhere across the nation because there are so many fake service dogs out there,” she said. “That’s something that we really struggle with, is getting access to some places because they’ve had fake service dogs before that really give a bad name to all service dogs.”
A service dog is allowed anywhere its handler goes, and in the state of Texas, documentation is not required to bring either a fully trained service animal or a service animal in training in public areas, according to the Texas Disability Law on Service Dogs.
Differentiating between actual service animals and pets who are simply being taken out by their owners may be difficult, as Haynes said no one is expected to have proof of training on hand.
“Luckily, the people at Canine Companions in Dallas, or in Irving, have sent us paperwork saying, like, ‘These are puppy raisers, we are a part of a national organization that is a non-profit, these dogs do go through extensive training,’ just to kind of help,” she said.
Once the puppies have trained at a Canine Companions for Independence regional site, they are ready to be adopted by a graduate, and Haynes said the puppy raiser gets to see both the graduate and the dog once again.
“Then there’s the whole graduation ceremony in which the puppy raiser hands off the leash to the new graduate, which is a very, very special moment to be able to say, like, ‘Here you go, here’s what I’ve spent the past 18 months with all my heart and soul dedicating to,’” she said, “but now the dog gets to go work for the new person, and sometimes the graduates even keep in touch, which is super awesome.”
All students are welcome to join Yellow Caped Raiders. Leah Thye, a junior companion animal science student from Bedford and president of Yellow Caped Raiders, said the organization will rely on Canine Companions for Independence when necessary.
“We’re really close with the people there,” she said. “They have been huge supporters of us and our club; they’re always there when we need to reach out to them.”
Thye said raising a puppy meant to serve someone who needs it is difficult, yet rewarding.
“So, it’s very rewarding, but very hard at the same time,” she said, “more so hard because just knowing that, ‘Oh, I’ve raised this dog since they were eight weeks old and they’re overall not mine,’ but rewarding in the sense of, ‘Oh, they’re gonna go serve a greater purpose, help someone who really needs them,’ and it’s just rewarding, being a part of that process.”