Kent-fostered service dogs: A breed apart


Connor Wright and his dog, Leo, pose for a portrait. 

Rachel Duthie

Connor Wright was born 12 weeks early within the rolling cornfields of Meade County, Kentucky, 387 miles southwest of Kent.

He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, epilepsy, chronic lung disease and 17 other medical conditions which left him nonverbal and wheelchair-bound.

Doctors didn’t expect him to talk, and Connor’s family worried he would never have the endurance to even get up on his own. Four years later, he did — all thanks to his service dog Leo, a golden retriever with an infectious smile, raised and trained in the heart of Kent State.

“(Connor) has started saying hi, goodbye and some other simple words. I couldn’t believe it, he progressed so much,” said Julee Wright, his mother. “He is just so attached to this dog, they are inseparable. (Leo) is making him learn so much.”

Leo, formerly known as Yamaha, is from 4 Paws for Ability, a nonprofit organization that provides trained service dogs to young children and veterans.

Kent State is among 18 other colleges that are a part of the organization’s university program, where college students have the ability to foster puppies who are about to be service dogs.

Launched in 2016, Kent State’s division of the program has garnered widespread social media attention and has sparked an influx of people interested in becoming fosters themselves. It is also the only program certified by on-campus accessibility services.

“It is just so rewarding to do this, knowing that you’re helping someone be better and more independent,” said Kiera Drymalski, a senior business management major and director of programming for 4 Paws for Ability.

Students foster a puppy for four to five months, training them to learn basic commands while also making them comfortable to interact with the public. Unknown to most, people are allowed to pet the dogs — in fact, it’s encouraged for the healthy development of the dog.

“I kind of went into it blind, not expecting where it would go,” said Shelby Hammond, a case management major and who fosters a dog. “It’s kind of like raising a kid. It’s a lot of hard work but it’s rewarding to teach it a new trick or see it grow.”

The program is also competitive. Out of 300 foster applications, only six were accepted for the fall 2017 semester.

“We are really looking for people who have had long-term commitments,” said Max Newberry, a sophomore digital sciences major and president of 4 Paws for Ability. “We want people who are responsible enough to take care of the dog, and will stay with them throughout the duration of their training.”

After four to five months of fostering, dogs are typically ready to undergo advanced training at the 4 Paws for Ability headquarters in Xenia, Ohio. There, the dogs learn skills like identifying diabetic shock or helping people who are going through an episode of intense, paralyzing anxiety.

Nighttime used to be the worst for the Wright’s. Connor, who repeatedly suffers from seizures, has to be checked on every hour to make sure he is asleep and still breathing.

Julee recalls a time earlier this year where she and her husband found Connor, face a solid color of blue, motionless in his crib.

“I knew that moment that I just needed a dog to help us because we were just becoming exhausted,” she said.

Leo is specifically trained to bark when Connor is experiencing a seizure at night. That way, the Wrights can only wake up when there is a real emergency happening.

Julee said Leo is “worth every penny,” despite the $15,000 price tag.

“The relationship between them is so great,” Julee said. “He is trying to crawl more now, and Leo just lifts Connor’s spirits up. The school even let Leo be in Connor’s school photo.”

As for Kent State’s 4 Paws for Ability, Leo is one of many dogs they hope to change someone’s life, despite the toll it may take on some of its members.

“You know, sometimes I think it’s a lot of work,” Drymalski said. “But then I remember who it is going to, and then I’m motivated all over again.”

Rachel Duthie is the features editor. Contact her at [email protected].