The pups are back: Duke Puppy Kindergarten to reopen with new dorm program

Puppies from the Canine Cognition Center are back to play (and snooze) in the Wellness Center on Tuesdays between 12:00-1:00 PM.

After more than a year without their cuddles, the puppies are finally coming back to campus. 

Duke Canine Cognition Center’s puppy kindergarten will welcome five new puppies this fall, their first group open to visitors since the pandemic. 

“Everyone is just really looking forward to getting back to normal on Duke’s campus. I think the puppy kindergarten [reopening] is one of the signs of that,” said Vanessa Woods, a research scientist in evolutionary anthropology and director of puppy kindergarten. 

The goal of puppy kindergarten, which works with puppies from non-profit organization Canine Companions, is to help graduate more assistance dogs. The lab’s research focuses on identifying potential assistance dogs early and gauging the effects of exposing puppies early on to a diverse range of people, Woods explained.

While puppy kindergarten’s reopening might mean a step towards normalcy, it also comes with some changes, including reduced visiting hours and a new dorm program. 

All five puppies will be part of the dorm program, which was briefly piloted in spring 2020 before campus closed due to the pandemic. Each “dorm puppy” is assigned to a team of three student volunteers, who each take care of the puppy for two nights a week. 

“We really are going to be much more like a kindergarten where you drop your puppy off in the morning and then you pick them up in the afternoon,” Woods said. 

Dorm volunteers receive training on how to teach puppies good behavior and positive reinforcement. For example, the puppies have to sit and wait before they have to eat, and “teaching an eight-week-old puppy self control is not an easy task,” said Morgan Ferrans, a second-year graduate student working in the lab. 

“It’s not just that you have to keep [the puppies] alive, you have to train them,” Ferrans said.

Woods explained that the puppies stay on campus from the time that they are eight-weeks-old to 20-weeks-old, a period of rapid brain development for them. The dorm program will give the puppies a chance to socialize more and give them experience with a range of people.

“That’s the time where we want to play cognitive games with them, to understand how they think and navigate the world, and basically try and give them a head start for becoming assistance dogs,” she explained. 

The puppy kindergarten’s new endeavor has garnered the support of multiple Duke programs. The Duke Department of Pediatrics donated a golf cart to the lab, which will allow the puppy kindergarten to pick up the puppies from dorms in the morning. Housing and Residence Life were so excited about the program that they asked for more puppies, Ferrans said. 

“They were like, ‘Put a puppy in every dorm!’ It’s because of them that we could expand the dorm program and have more puppies sleeping with students,” Woods said. 

Previous dorm volunteers have also shared that they built community because of the puppies in their dorms, said senior Jordan Sokoloff, who was a dorm volunteer during the pilot program. 

“People who they didn’t know lived in their hall were knocking on their door. They’d put up a sign that said, like, ‘The puppy’s here! Feel free to come in,’” Sokoloff said. “The community-building piece is what’s so special about it, and we were really, really missing that when we didn’t have the puppies on campus.” 

All three said that seeing volunteers and students dropping by the puppy kindergarten was what they missed the most during the pandemic. 

Before the pandemic, the puppy kindergarten had 107 volunteers. In a survey conducted by the lab, a majority of the volunteers said that working with the puppies had a positive effect on their mental health. 

“The hope is that the puppies will do their job, just bringing joy to everyone. I hope that we get lots of students involved in the research, that the puppies have fun during their time here, and that we can create lots of good memories for both the puppies and the students,” Woods said. 

Due to the dorm program, Woods anticipates taking on less student volunteers this semester. 

“When the puppies are there during the day, the basement of [Biological Sciences] is like a mecca for people,” Ferrans said. “Puppy kindergarten is a place where people just stop by when they’ve had a long day or a hard day and just need to hug a puppy.”

She said that since the pandemic, the lab had received a multitude of emails from people saying how much they loved visiting the puppies and asking when the puppy kindergarten was reopening. 

“I missed just seeing the joy on people’s faces. It’s going to be a very happy moment for me when the kindergarten is back on in person,” Woods said. “I think the students are going to be happy to see the puppies, but I’m going to be happy to see them.” 

Milla Surjadi profile
Milla Surjadi | Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator

Milla Surjadi is a Trinity junior and a diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator of The Chronicle's 119th volume. She was previously editor-in-chief for Volume 118.


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