Fostering young service dogs a labor of puppy love for UF students

Every morning, Morgan Montaudo — a University of Florida health science senior on the pre-occupational therapy track — puts on her backpack, heads toward the door and then turns to her wagging golden retriever to ask, “Do you want to be a service dog today?”

Montaudo, 23, and her classmate Emily Kartiganer, 22, each foster a golden retriever for New Horizons Service Dogs — a nonprofit organization headquartered in Central Florida that pairs service dogs with people with disabilities, including those who have brain or spinal cord injuries such as cerebral palsy, children who have autism or military veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder.

Montaudo's foster dog, Biscotti, and Kartiganer's foster dog, Hawkeye, accompany the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions students everywhere they go, including to classes, restaurants and football games. Hawkeye was even featured on the big screen at a University of Florida gymnastics meet.

“No matter where we bring them, they make people smile,” Kartiganer said. “And at the same time, we're thrilled to be raising awareness about service dogs.”

The students met after each applied to New Horizons to foster a dog. Other UF students have fostered dogs for the organization, which breeds golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers to be service dogs.

For its part, New Horizons recognizes the value of these volunteers.

“The backbone of our organization is the loving, dedicated raisers who help raise the puppies that become service dogs,’’ said office manager Jennifer Abbott.

To gain the socialization and training skills they need to become service dogs, Biscotti and Hawkeye, both nearly 2 years old, are placed with new “puppy raisers” every few months who each play a part in preparing the dogs for final placement with their “forever owners.”

The dogs were initially placed with “puppy raisers” when they were 8 weeks old. “Puppy raisers” cared for the dogs for six to eight months before the dogs entered the “Prison Pup Program” — a collaboration between New Horizons Service Dogs and the Florida Department of Corrections. According to New Horizons, raising service dogs allows inmates to gain self-esteem and interpersonal skills that will help deter them from returning to the prison system, and the dogs acquire skills that will eventually allow them to help clients in their daily lives.

Following completion of the “Prison Pup Program,” the dogs are placed with “prison puppy raisers” for another six to eight months — in this case, with Montaudo and Kartiganer. In addition to completing monthly evaluations of the dogs' progress and attending training sessions, the students, like all other puppy raisers, are expected to pay for the dogs’ food and veterinary bills.

Montaudo and Kartiganer strive to expose Biscotti and Hawkeye to possible environmental situations they may experience once they are placed with their “forever owners.” Every Tuesday and Thursday, Biscotti and Hawkeye accompany them to their musculoskeletal anatomy class taught by Orit Shechtman, Ph.D., an associate professor in the PHHP department of occupational therapy.

Shechtman, who said she loves seeing the dogs in her class, said fostering Biscotti and Hawkeye now will help Montaudo and Kartiganer succeed as occupational therapists later.

“Fostering the dogs in the present helps the students learn responsibility, commitment, consistency, follow-through and adaptation,” she said. “As to benefits in the future, occupational therapists work in areas ranging from pediatrics to geriatrics where therapy dogs and service dogs can be utilized to help clients. These students are ahead of the game when it comes to incorporating dogs into their therapy routines.”

Between May and July, Montaudo and Kartiganer will have to say goodbye to Biscotti and Hawkeye as the dogs move on to advanced training. There, the dogs' skills will be assessed and specialized to ensure they are prepared to assist people with disabilities by accomplishing tasks such as opening doors, pulling wheelchairs and retrieving objects. Once the dogs are fully trained to meet clients' individual needs, they will finally meet their “forever owners,” and the pairs will go through two weeks of intensive training together.

Montaudo and Kartiganer said they will have the opportunity to reunite with Biscotti, Hawkeye and their new owners in the next few months.

“Though we are saddened to have to give them up, we know Biscotti and Hawkeye are going to change people's lives,” Montaudo said. “Their forever owners' lives will be much more at ease, and we will know we helped make that happen.”

Abbott, of New Horizons, agreed that the moment can be bittersweet.

“As painful as it is to turn in a puppy, there is no prouder moment than handing the leash to the client after training is complete and knowing that because you were able to let go, you gave a person with disabilities a better life,’’ she said. 

 Grateful for the opportunity to care for adorable pups while helping others, both students said they plan to foster golden retrievers again in the future.

“Biscotti and Hawkeye brought us so much happiness,” Kartiganer said. “And it's amazing to know someone will get to experience that same happiness for a lifetime.”