She was one of the most popular residents in Ottawa House West: an energetic blonde with sparkling brown eyes and an outgoing personality.
“Aspen is why most people come to our room,” Alana Shockley, a sophomore majoring in communication, said and then laughed while petting the Labrador retriever.The 1-year-old dog definitely turned heads and made a lot of friends.
“Some people ask, ‘How did you get a dog in a residence hall?’ And we explain she’s a service dog in training,” Courtney Koebel, a sophomore majoring in education, said. “Some ask if they can pet her, and we have to calm her down first.”
Settling down is just one thing Shockley and Koebel worked on with Aspen.
“We are trying to teach her commands — sit, stay, kennel — and to get her to focus,” Koebel said. “It’s going well. She has a good work ethic, but she gets distracted sometimes.”
Koebel and Shockley welcomed their four-legged roommate last fall. They are members of Rocket Service Dogs, a University organization partnering with Assistance Dogs for Achieving Independence and the Ability Center of Greater Toledo to encourage students to foster and train dogs.
“We were trying to figure out how to get more involved on campus and were looking at all the organizations,” Shockley said. “And once we saw Rocket Service Dogs, we fell in love because we’re really crazy animal lovers, it’s dogs, and we’re helping people.”
Students in the organization take an orientation and policy class through Rocket Service Dogs, and then a handling course taught by Assistance Dogs for Achieving Independence.
Aspen is the first canine to live and train in a residence hall through Rocket Service Dogs.
It took a year of planning between the University, Assistance Dogs for Achieving Independence and the Ability Center of Greater Toledo to make the placement possible, according to Josephine Biltz, a third-year student majoring in biology and president of the Rocket Service Dogs.
“Aspen seemed to really like the residence hall from the second she walked in, and I think it was a really great atmosphere for her to be exposed to a lot of different people,” Biltz said.
While Aspen wasn’t ready to attend class on campus with Shockley and Koebel, she did go to school once a week. Every Friday, the trio headed to Flower Hospital for class with Assistance Dogs for Achieving Independence.
“We practice attention, loose-leash walking. Sometimes they teach us new commands, and then we’ll practice old commands,” Koebel said. “We work on Aspen’s attention, get her to focus for long periods of time, so she’ll be able to come to University classes with us. And sometimes instead of class, we’ll have outings. We’ll go out with [Assistance Dogs for Achieving Independence] to a public place to see how she reacts.”
Praise and rewards bolster Aspen’s desire to please — and learn.
“We usually give her small treats to motivate her; sometimes we just use her kibble,” Shockley said. “We bought her some little Milk-Bones, and she really likes those.”
“When you’ve been working with her for a while and she finally understands what we’re trying to do, it’s rewarding to see her get excited,” Koebel said. “She really likes treats, so she’s kind of always excited.”
Aspen recently moved on to continue training through Assistance Dogs for Achieving Independence’s prison program, where she was paired with an inmate.
While their time working with the Lab was brief, Koebel and Shockley will remember Aspen and her goal.
“Depending on how well Aspen does and if her attention span gets longer, she could be paired with someone with a disability,” Shockley said. “But if not, she’ll be a therapy and emotional support animal.”
“It makes me feel good that I’m able to help someone who has a disability and can’t help themselves, so it’s cool to know I’m part of the process to help make their life a little bit easier,” Shockley said.