When Tiana Kelly steps up to receive her diploma on May 7 at Millersville University’s undergraduate commencement, she will be accompanied by her best buddy, Pinella.
Pinella is a dark haired beauty, who has been hanging out with Kelly for the past five months. She just happens to be a Black Labrador Retriever. On Graduation Day, Pinella will be “walking” with Kelly.
Kelly got special permission to have Pinella join her at commencement. In some ways, she’ll be graduating too. Pinella is part of the Susquehanna Service Dogs (SSD) in Grantville, Pa. Kelly has been training the seven-month-old pup in preparation for Pinella becoming an SSD service dog.
Eventually, Pinella will go on to provide service and companionship to a person with physical or mental disabilities. As Kelly notes, a service dog can be trained to pull a wheelchair, use their paws to touch handicap buttons to open doors for people, assist with daily tasks, retrieve items and calm someone by resting their upper body on the person’s lap. They also can respond and comfort someone who has had a seizure.
“I have even seen a service dog unzip and take off a woman’s jacket for her,” says Kelly, 22.
Kelly is from Tower City, Pa., and is receiving a B.A. degree in Psychology, with a minor in Sociology. She plans to attend Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, N.J., for her Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, with the goal of becoming a Licensed Professional Counselor.
In the fall 2015, Kelly interned with Susquehanna Service Dogs for academic credit. After completing the internship, she decided to become a volunteer puppy raiser and trainer. Being a dog-lover with two dogs of her own, Chloie and Maggie , it was only natural. Keeping Pinella with her at the college residence hall, at classes and other activities is important to Pinella’s socialization.
Kelly is training Pinella on all the basic cues, such as “sit,” “stand,” “come,” “stay” and “leave it.” When Pinella enters advanced training at around 18 months, she will be assessed on her strengths and trained accordingly. She might become a balance dog, a hearing dog, a companion dog for a person with PTSD, a seizure response dog or a service dog that will assist children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Kelly expects to find out about Pinella’s placement in the future. For now, Kelly is enjoying all the puppy cuddles and affection.
“I have no doubt that it will be extremely difficult to let Pinella go,” admits Kelly. “But I know that somebody needs her love and assistance more than I do. I signed up to raise and train a service dog, not to raise, train and keep a service dog.”
Kelly believes that the experience will relate to her degree in psychology and provide her with the opportunity to learn about animal behavior and operant conditioning. As a future Licensed Professional Counselor, she would like to offer animal-assisted therapy in her practice. She also wants to refer appropriate clients to Susquehanna Service Dogs in cases when they benefit from having a service dog.
As long as it’s not too hot on graduation day, Pinella is expected to walk with Kelly when she gets her diploma. Pinella will be sporting her fashionable, purple Susquehanna Service Dog vest over her full-length black coat. A few friends have suggested that the puppy wear a Millersville tee-shirt.
Eventually Pinella will be recognized at her own graduation ceremony, when she is teamed up with her future partner. That’s when the furry “student” with a big heart will be commended for her hard work and commitment to being a service dog.
“I will have the opportunity to see her and her partner at their graduation ceremony,” says Kelly. “Many experienced volunteer raisers and trainers have told me this as a heartwarming part of their work, because they finally receive affirmation of their efforts in helping the lives of deserving individuals.”
For more information on graduation at Millersville, please visit the commencement webpage.