Golden memories

Golden memories

Every morning during the spring semester, Morgan Montaudo — a University of Florida health science senior on the pre-occupational therapy track — put on her backpack, headed toward the door and then turned 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 fostered 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, accompanied the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions students everywhere they went, 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 they began fostering the dogs. Other UF students have also fostered dogs through New Horizons, which breeds golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers to become service dogs.

Office manager Jennifer Abbott said 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,’’ she said.

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 who, in this case, are 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 sought to expose Biscotti and Hawkeye to possible environmental situations the dogs may experience. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Biscotti and Hawkeye accompanied them to their musculoskeletal anatomy class taught by Orit Shechtman, Ph.D., an associate professor in the 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.”

Montaudo and Kartiganer had to say goodbye to Biscotti and Hawkeye as the dogs moved on to advanced training where they will learn to assist people with disabilities by 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 coming 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.