A look into Duke’s beloved Puppy Kindergarten

It’s a sleepy morning at the Duke Puppy Kindergarten in early October. Inside a cozy room within the Duke Canine Cognition Center, Congo and Nancy are perfectly content. The two dogs — an adult and a puppy Labrador-golden mix —  sniff, cuddle and pad around the space without a care in the world.

Suddenly, a bright golden blur with a blue collar darts in, dragging his leash behind him. The room lights up with laughter and shrieks as he launches his small fuzzy body at dogs and humans.

The newcomer is Maestro, one of Duke’s 2022 class of puppy kindergarteners. Alongside his peers Nancy, Madeline and Neely, he is among the latest cohort of the Canine Cognition Center’s 12-week course to develop the skills needed to become full-fledged service dogs.

History of puppy kindergarten

After meeting Puppy Kindergarten Director Vanessa Woods inside the Canine Cognition Center, I accompanied her on a brisk walk around the Duke Pond with Congo, Nancy and Maestro. We were joined by Lab Coordinator Candler Cusato, Trinity ‘22, and sophomore Jamie Sokoloff, a student volunteer.

Woods explained the story behind puppy kindergarten while redirecting a curious puppy on the end of the leash.

“We wanted to study dogs in the way that you study your children … you know, because dogs are part of the family, and we test them like we test human children,” she said. 

The puppy kindergarten program is a longitudinal study first introduced in 2019 and is funded by the National Institute of Health.

The puppies, provided by Canine Companions, first enroll in the program at just eight weeks old. During the session, each cohort of Labrador-golden puppies are given a crash course in the skills needed to be a guide dog, ranging from walking well on a leash and picking up credit cards to carrying a backpack and helping alleviate emotional distress. 

Beyond teaching puppies these day-to-day tasks, researchers also take a deeper look at canine cognition, according to Woods. By running an array of cognitive tests every two weeks, they assess qualities such as how well puppies read human gestures, use cooperative communication and employ self-control. Through testing each puppy cohort, Woods and her team hope to gain a better idea of which cognitive profiles are most likely to succeed as guide dogs. They also aim to streamline the lengthy guide dog waiting list, which The Seeing Eye, the oldest guide dog school in the U.S., estimates to be one to four years.

“We try and figure out every aspect of their cognition, from how they see the world, to how they use — what they see to solve problems,” Woods said. 

After the course, the puppies are placed in temporary homes for about a year and a half where they further refine their skills, according to Cusato. Puppies that pass through this stage are funneled to team training, where they’re paired with handlers with disabilities. After puppies pass team training, they are ready to begin their careers in service. 

For pups less suited for these roles, there are still a host of options — they can work as military dogs, therapy dogs, hearing dogs or simply be beloved household pets.

Meet the puppy kindergarten volunteers

Sokoloff beamed as she discussed her work with the puppy kindergarten over the last three semesters. She’s among a team of 20 volunteers in the dorm program, which piloted in spring 2020 and relaunched in fall 2021. She’s been assigned to Maestro, now sixteen weeks old, who sleeps with her in her room in Craven twice a week. 

“It's so rewarding to see the puppies grow up, and especially the ones that have more trouble with different commands, kind of master those commands. And I've been really lucky to have both puppies I raised last year stay in Durham and be able to see them,” she said. 

Sokoloff also spoke to the positivity that the yellow-vested puppies inspire on campus.

“I'm just getting to see the joy that all these puppies bring everyone when they're walking around on campus, and when people even just see them out in public, they just swarm to them.”

Though a fun job, Sokoloff says she’s made some sacrifices, explaining that she’s had to stay in on some weekends and at times prioritize the puppy’s needs over her own. And of course, walking across campus takes double the time when students stop to chat and pet the puppies. 

Cusato spoke to some of these challenges as well. A seasoned puppy parent herself — she’s currently on her fifth puppy kindergartener — she wishes that more students would realize the amount of work that goes into raising a guide-dog-in-training. 

“College is already stressful, but adding on, caring for another life and wanting to set it up for success, that's a lot of pressure. So I give a real thank you to our dorm raisers who take that on,” she said. 

Cusato fell in love with puppy kindergarten after raising her first puppy, Weston, in fall 2019. She now works at the kindergarten full-time, coordinating volunteers, caring for the puppies and completing administrative tasks.

Cusato and Sokoloff both emphasized the importance of asking a handler before interacting with a service dog. 

“If it's a really young dog and it's in training, at least ask before you pet it, just because you don't want a service dog who's working to get distracted or because that can negatively impact their handler,” Cusato said. 

Play with the puppies

After the walk around the pond, we approached the outdoor play area, where student volunteer Colin Roberts, a sophomore, was playing with more puppies. 

Roberts was first introduced to puppy kindergarten through their outdoor visiting hours. The kindergarteners receive around 200 visitors a week, according to Woods. 

From 2:00 - 3:00 p.m. on weekdays, visitors can freely drop in to play with the puppies in an outdoor enclosure near Gross Hall. 

Sevana Wenn profile
Sevana Wenn | Features Managing Editor

Sevana Wenn is a Trinity sophomore and features managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.


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