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Training more than a companion

Emily Watkins took matters into her own hands and
decided to train her own service dog for her health issues.

If you think taking care of yourself in college is taxing enough, imagine adding a furry little companion to the mix.

This is USF student Emily Watkins’ life — training with a soon-to-be medical alert dog, all while keeping up with a college schedule. Cosmos, the little German shepherd in training, is currently working to aid with medical alerts or mobility with the help of Emily and her siblings.

Watkins is a freshman studying integrative animal biology while also caring for Cosmos in her dorm room. She has been training him since late December.

“It can take anywhere from six months to several years to fully train a dog,” Watkins said.

While training a service dog is a big responsibility, it was the best option to help with her medical situation, according to Watkins.

“I began training my own service dog because I had health issues that needed to be mitigated and going with a training program wasn’t an option,” Watkins said. 

While Watkins said training is an extremely rewarding endeavor, there are moments that can make it difficult. With a tight school schedule, she finds it easy for the training to get slightly off track – especially while training on a campus full of dog lovers.

“Training dogs is really hard and is basically like being a parent to a toddler,” Watkins said. “It is made even more difficult when people try to distract him or me. Often, people will stare, take pictures without permission, try to pet him, make kissy noises and even follow me around.”

Although Cosmos’s innate puppy enthusiasm keeps Watkins from bringing him to class, she is making small improvements as they go along.

Watkins said that Cosmos is currently being trained to practice waiting and lying down for long periods of time without whining, which will help to tame his personality and eventually let her bring him to class.

“I use treats to reinforce an action and ask him to do it again and again — assigning it a name and a hand signal,” Watkins said. “He begins to recognize that if he does this action, he gets a treat.”

After training Cosmos, Watkins said that she feels more connected to trainers and understands better what they go through.

“[I have an] increased respect for people who spend their days training dogs,” Watkins said. “[Trainers] often have to put aside their own needs and wants for the well-being of their puppy.”

In the end, Watkins sees the training as beneficial to both her and Cosmos.

“I am always learning from my mistakes and his,” Watkins said.