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Lego kids give a 'paw' up to UWRF group

UW-River Falls students are training this dog, Ross, to be a service dog. He's this year's furry "student" in the college's service dog training program. The Meyer Middle School Lego League team is planning a Paw-A-Thon event to help support the UWRF service dog traning program. Submitted photo.

A group of Meyer Middle School students are getting ready to lend a helping "paw" to UW-River Falls students in ADEPT (Assistance Dog Educational Program and Training), formerly known as the Service Dog Training Program.

The kids are part of the middle school Lego League robotics team. One of the requirements for the competition they in which they competed was to do a project that helped the community in some way related to the year's theme, said coach Jeremy Odegard. This year's theme was "animal allies."

In their research on finding ways to help animals in the community, the Lego League kids heard from Professor Beth Rausch, head of the ADEPT program.

"It takes about $30,000 to train one service dog, and a large percentage of that $30,000 is dedicated to feeding the animals," said Odegard. "The kids thought that was an interesting problem to attack."

The team came up with a plan to hold a "Paw-A-Thon," set for May 6. The event will include a 5K which people can complete with their dogs, and several other dog-themed activities.

Odegard and several Lego League kids attended a City Council meeting earlier this month to ask for permission to use Hoffman Park for the event, and for city assistance with the event.

The council granted their request, and several council members said they thought the event sounded great.

"The kids are really excited about this," Odegard said. "They weren't 100 percent certain they would be able to follow through, because of potential roadblocks, but everyone that we've spoken with has been receptive of the idea, and has encouraged them to make it happen."

Odegard said it's very rewarding seeing the kids' idea be realized.

"They've done a lot of work," he said. "And seeing them maintain their level of enthusiasm is giving everybody that is connected to this project a lot of energy and a lot of motivation to continue.

If people aren't able to do the 5K with their own dog, there will be adoptable dogs at the event that people can "borrow" for the 5K.

The 5K will consist of three full laps around a path in the park.

Odegard said it was decided to keep the route within the park limits, for safety reasons.

A veterinarian (Rausch) will be on site, in case any animals need veterinary care.

There will be service dog demonstrations at the event. ADEPT students will also be present, as will adoptable animals, and more.


Rausch said she was flabbergasted when the Lego League team approached her with the idea of the Paw-A-Thon.

"We were really honored," she said, "and just really, really, really, really humbled to be the beneficiary of the brainchild of the students."

She said the students' "passion" and "dedication" have been inspiring to her students.

Student Madeline Johnson, who hopes to be a service dog trainer after college, said she's really excited about the Paw-A-Thon. Johnson's father lives in River Falls, and she said she's grown up in the city, though she went to school in Hudson.

Fellow student Alice Stafne, who has one year left at UWRF said she thinks the Paw-A-Thon is "fantastic."

"I was amazed that it was middle schoolers that have put forth all that effort and made it become a real thing," she said.

The ADEPT program is in its third year. Rausch said the funds from the Paw-A-Thon, planned to be an annual event, will be a game-changer for ADEPT.

"The program currently has no facility on campus for the dogs, for overnight stays," Rausch said. "We'll be able to allocate funds then for our own space for the students and dogs."

The money that would have been spent on food is now freed up, Rausch said, to be spent on housing where student handlers will be able to stay with the service dog trainees.

The program trains service dogs to perform specific tasks, which could help people with medical issues, disabilities or other problems. To complete this specialized training, Rausch said, the student trainers need to be with the trainee dog 24/7.

"This Paw-A-Thon makes this possible," Rausch said. "It takes the program to an entirely new level, directly as the result of the Meyer Middle School students."

So far, ADEPT program has been training one dog per year. This year's dog, Ross, has shown great potential, Rausch said.

In the future, Rausch hopes the program will be able to train more than one dog per year.

Rausch said the level of support the service dog trainees have received from the community has been "astonishing."

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

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