Dog days of college

Student trains pups, devotes herself to special needs kids

by Robin Chenoweth

One blowing leaf. The passing distraction can disrupt a goldendoodle in training, especially if its mind is set on playing. A flurry of wind and leaves could spiral into puppy pandemonium.

Good thing Abby Watson is in charge. The third-year special education major volunteers with Ohio State’s 4 Paws for Ability, training dogs to aid children with disabilities and veterans.

This fall, in addition to taking a full slate of classes, she will negotiate whirlwinds and other tests of will with Skeena, the leaf nipper, and Holden, a golden retriever puppy. For up to 10 hours a week, one of the dogs will attend classes with Watson, some three hours long.

“Ohio State is a perfect campus to train these dogs because it’s always crowded with people, there’s always a lot of traffic, different noises and a lot of different smells,” Watson said. “The dogs are getting used to all of that.”

Skeena and Holden also could find themselves at groups like Students Supporting People with Down Syndrome, where Watson serves as treasurer. Or, the pups might hang out with Jacki, a young woman on the autism spectrum whom Watson met through Best Buddies, yet another campus organization.

Jacki liked her “buddy” so much that her family asked Watson to be her certified caretaker. When Watson wasn’t working at a summer preschool program for special needs children, the two were near constant companions. They play soccer and basketball in unified leagues.

Her time with Jacki has been “life changing,” Watson said. “Seeing the progress that she’s already made, it’s so rewarding.”

She might sound like an overachiever, but Watson insists she simply loves assisting people with disabilities. “I’m so blessed because I have never thought of it as a job. I would do it for free.”

That’s passion you hope for in a special education teacher, said Charis Price, assistant professor of special education. “Her empathy, compassion and curiosity about the world set her apart.”

Watson discovered her purpose at 16, when she spent every spare minute assisting students in Lancaster High School’s multiple disabilities class. One year, a student got her long-awaited service dog. “I saw how this dog changed her life,” she said. “It grew on me. I thought, I need to become part of that.”

She imagines that, one day, Skeena might walk into her future classroom, or onto the playground, and pay no heed to blowing leaves.