Calculating Canines

By UM News

Calculating Canines

By UM News
U Pup Co-President Lindsey Slavin graduates with one of her angels at her side.

Lindsey Slavin really shouldn’t have signed up for calculus. She didn’t have the prerequisites and was struggling in class. But that “mistake” would prove a blessing for Slavin, who transferred to the University of Miami from Wake Forest her sophomore year hoping to leave a lasting mark on campus.

Though she withdrew from calculus, she found one of her “angels,” math instructor Joy Beverly, now senior residential faculty at Eaton Residential College. Beverly recruited Slavin and a fellow calculus classmate, Jamie Tryba, to establish U Pup, Florida’s first college service club dedicated to raising Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) puppies that could become highly trained assistants to people with developmental or physical disabilities.

Slavin’s success as co-president of the blossoming organization will be evident Friday morning, when she crosses the commencement stage for her B.A. in psychology accompanied by a petite, four-legged blonde who’s graduating, too. Her name is Dolcetto—Dolce for short—and the 18-month-old yellow Labrador will be heading to CCI graduate school, having acquired the obedience and socialization skills she came to UM to learn.

“To transfer and fulfill your wildest goals leaves me speechless,’’ said Slavin, a member of the Honor Council who, after an internship, plans to go to grad school herself. “I knew when I came here I wanted to pursue my passion and interests, but I never imagined it’d be with dogs, which are so close to my heart. It couldn’t have fallen into place any better.”

To date, CCI has placed more than 5,000 dogs who are trained to open doors, turn on lights, sound alerts, or even dial 911 with people who can’t perform many tasks most of us take for granted. But for the first 18 months of the dogs’ lives, the nonprofit relies on dedicated puppy raisers to teach them basic commands and expose them to real-world situations.

Having already raised a CCI puppy named Colin with her family off-campus, Beverly knew that UM would be an ideal CCI training ground—for both puppies and puppy raisers. As she has noted, “Service dogs can’t flinch when they hear noises; they can’t be afraid of getting on an elevator or a bus. They can’t freak out when a skateboarder zips by, and they’ll get exposure to all of that on campus, and more.”

Beverly also believed Slavin, whose family has counted six yellow labs as members, had the passion to turn her idea of making UM a permanent CCI training ground a reality. But she wondered if Slavin “could separate the pet aspect from the training aspect.” 

“I was more sure of Jamie since her family had raised two Guide Dogs for the Blind, but it was Lindsey and Jamie who always showed up for those first few meetings,” Beverly said. “And when Jamie left to study abroad, it was Lindsey who did any and every difficult and dirty job. She was efficient at organizing and pulling things together. I think every student can be a great leader if they find their passion and Lindsey certainly has a passion for the dogs, for the training, and for helping people with disabilities.”

Slavin had a little help, though, from a tail-wagging, 8-pound fur ball named Trenton, who arrived on campus in summer 2015, unwittingly becoming U Pup’s founding father. Wearing his distinctive yellow and blue CCI vest as he went to class, the library, volleyball games, the Rat—anywhere Slavin or other U Pup student trainers went—Trenton became U Pup’s most successful recruiter.

By the time he left UM for his advanced CCI training last November—a day Slavin calls the hardest, most bittersweet of her life—U Pup’s membership had grown to more than 150. And, Beverly says, thanks to Slavin’s “genius,” U Pup’s mission had grown, too—expanding its service beyond puppy raising. 

Like the majority of CCI puppies, Colin, the Beverly's first CCI dog, did not prove to have all the right stuff to graduate from CCI’s advanced training. Only about 40 percent of the candidates do. So he was returned to the Beverlys, and now spends several days a week at The Lennar Foundation Medical Center, where his visits with patients have made him a valued staff member. Colin and Dolce also attend Best Buddy gatherings on campus, joining U Pup members in befriending people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and introducing them to new experiences.

And just as she graduates, Slavin is proud to report that Trenton seems likely to make it through advanced training. After leaving U Pup in Dolce’s paws, she said, he “declared his major,” showing an aptitude for assisting deaf people.

But if Trenton doesn’t find his CCI match, he surely will find another purpose at UM, where he will return to Slavin and follow Colin’s footsteps to Lennar while she interns in the lab of UM’s mindfulness guru Amishi Jha, associate professor of psychology, before pursuing her Ph.D. in performance and sports psychology.

“Angels,” Slavin said of Beverly, “are those special people in your life who, when you meet them, everything falls into place. But,” she added, straightening Dolce’s graduation cap, “some angels have tails.”