Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2012, 4:00 pm

Augustana College club helps train service dogs

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Todd Welvaert,

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Photo: Todd Welvaert
Mary Kiolbasa, 19, plays with Bobo, a yellow Labrador she is helping to train to be a service dog on Wednesday. Ms. Kiolbasa is the founder and president of Viking Pups, an Augustana College club that has partnered with Quad Cities Canine Assistance Network to help train service and facility dogs.
She looks like pretty much every other college student on Augustana's campus, backpack full of books, cell phone in hand, except for the thick-headed yellow lab at her feet.

The dog, Bobo, wears a vest along with his collar, identifying him as a service dog. Mary Kiolbasa, 19, of Willowbrook, is giving him an education while she's getting hers.

The Augustana sophomore is the president and founder of Viking Pups, an Augustana College club that helps train service and facility dogs for people who need them. Ms. Kiolbasa is majoring in psychology and intends to use animal therapy in her career after school.

The program takes the dogs from puppyhood to placement with a client. The dog might be used by someone who has mobility issues, to turn lights on or fetch small items. Other dogs are trained to fetch medicine and to stand near their owner until they take it. Other dogs are taught to help steady a client's balance or help them calm down during an anxiety attack.

"The work they do with people is amazing," she said "The affect they have on people, it's absolutely amazing."

The Viking Pups program is partnered with the non-profit Quad Cities Canine Assistance Network, which provides the dogs, food, discounted vet service and the foster parents who take the dogs home and bring them back every night.

"We can't have the dogs in the dorms, so they go home every night with their foster parents, and then they bring them back in the morning," she said. "They go everywhere we go. The campus is really a microcosm of the world, the dining hall is like a restaurant.

"The campus is great because it's a mini-version of what they are going to experience in the real world," Ms. Kiolbasa said. "A lot of our clients are in school, so this atmosphere, these conditions are what the dogs are heading into once they are placed."

Ms. Kiolbasa said students are a good match for the program too, because their schedule allows them bits of time between classes to work with the dogs on their training and the built-in socialization on campus.

The dogs start by learning the basics like sit, stay and heel and then move on to more difficult things like leaving found food alone or waiting at doors, and then they start learning the specific skills they will need to help their next owners.

There's nearly 50 students involved in the Viking Pups program, including about 15 handlers. To date, they have placed one dog and are helping train two now and are hoping to get more soon.

Ms. Kiolbasa started the program in the fall last year and was officially recognized by Augustana College as a club in the beginning of the year.

"I actually didn't think it would have gone that fast," she said. "I was expecting it was going to take a lot, but once people heard what we wanted to do they were really supportive."

Ms. Kiolbasa said she had to explain what the club was going to do to a lot of administrators and the staff that run the buildings on campus before they got the OK. Professors decide if the dogs will be allowed in their classrooms and can decline if they feel it will be a disruption, but many have had the opposite reaction.

"I get professors coming up to us all the time asking when we are going to take one of their classes," Ms. Kiolbasa said. "I had to tell some that I'm not majoring in their field. We've been asked to drop by some classes for a visit. It's been overwhelmingly positive. We've even had alumni post on our Facebook page about how proud they are Augustana is one of the few colleges out there that is doing this."

Ms. Kiolbasa said their can be a pinch of sadness when one of the dogs is placed, but it's easy to overcome.

"They make such a difference in someone's life," Ms. Kiolbasa said. "Knowing they are going to someone who will love them just as much, who will care for them and someone who needs them. There's such a long wait for these dogs, and to be a part of the solution that is alleviating that weight. To be part of that, it's not that hard at all."

For more information

Both the Viking Pups program and the Quad CIties Canine Assistance Network are funded mainly through donations. For more information on both, check out their facebook pages at and

The dogs come from Iron Hill Retrievers out of Maquoketa, Iowa. You can find more information about the breeder at