Donning bright orange vests, our service dogs in training are hard to miss. Whether you’re getting your Starbucks fix or taking the bus to class, you’re sure to spot these pups on campus! Illini Service Dogs is a student-run, non-profit organization that trains service dogs for those in need. We sought out the president of Illini Service Dogs, Erin Sahm, to learn more about what the organization does and the impact it has on campus and community members.
What do service dogs do, and how does your organization work with them?
“There are a lot of different types of dogs that might constitute a service dog, but we focus on mobility service dogs, which help people who have physical disabilities. During their time with us, the dogs learn over 40 different commands—how to hit push plates to open doors, how to turn on and off lights, retrieve objects, take off articles of clothing, things like that.
“It’s a year-round commitment for campus members. We train the dogs during the school year, over breaks, and over the summer. They live with us on campus as well. Student volunteers are the heart of our organization and everyone involved in the RSO is a current student.”
What makes Illini Service Dogs an important organization?
“What really sets our organization apart from other organizations is that we provide service dogs to people completely free of charge. Service dogs from private organizations can cost upwards of tens of thousands of dollars, which just really isn’t possible for a lot of people who might need a service dog. Our founder, Bridget Evans (an Illinois alum!), saw a really interesting opportunity to use college students as a resource for training service dogs, and it’s been really successful.”
How did you get involved with Illini Service Dogs?
“I ended up finding it on Quad Day, which is when most people find us. I heard that there were puppies on the Quad, so I went to go find them. When I met actual members, I just thought that the mission was so cool, and it was a lot different from anything else I had heard of before. I was able to apply and get in. It’s been definitely the most rewarding experience I’ve had so far at U of I.”
Where do you get your dogs, and how do you name them?
“Our dogs are donated to us, so we’ve developed relationships with different breeders and shelters. We’re not breed-specific—we have labs in our organization, we’ve had poodles, and we have rescues as well. When people hear about our organization and about our mission, they want to be involved. That includes donors who sponsor the dogs as well.
“Typically, we try to have an Illinois-themed name for a dog. Some of the dogs that have recently graduated are Newman, after Newman Hall, and Alma, after Alma Mater. But when we have donors that want to sponsor a dog, we allow them to choose the name.”
What does a day in the life of a member look like?
“All our members have different roles in our organization. Each dog we have on campus is trained by a team of about eight members. There’s one member that we refer to as the primary, and the dog lives with that person for the majority of the time. The other members on the team will take the dog out for weekly sessions during the school year.
“A regular member will have at least one dog session with a dog each week, and the dogs themselves will have at least two training sessions a day. For our members, we have mandatory Sunday training. It’s a way for all of us to come together and train as a large organization.”
What’s the most rewarding part?
“I think just seeing the impact that our dogs have on their placements. Knowing how big of a difference it’s going to make in their life and how much more independent they’re going to be after having our dog makes all the different challenges and obstacles we had to overcome with training the dog worth it.
“It is a little bittersweet to see a dog that you’ve spent so much time with leave your organization, but it’s definitely more sweet than bitter knowing that they’re really going to help someone’s life.”
What do you wish people knew about Illini Service Dogs?
“You can become personally educated about disability culture and the disability community. I’ve learned so much through my time here. That’s one of the other large parts of our organization—learning how to educate the local community through demonstrations.
“We get invites from other organizations to do demonstrations educating them on service dog etiquette and different laws that pertain to service dogs. I have definitely enjoyed being a part of these demonstrations that we do for different community groups, because that’s a way where I feel like we’re really engaging with the Illinois community.”
How can a student learn more about getting involved?
“I definitely recommend following us on social media, because we’ll be posting when we have info nights at the beginning of the year and when our application goes live. We only are open for new applications at the beginning of the fall semester—so around early September. Definitely find us on Quad Day if possible. If you find us on Quad Day, then you can be added to our email list and we can be in direct contact.”
Now, can we go pet some dogs?
“That would be great! I don’t have one with me, unfortunately. We do have fundraisers on the Quad throughout the year where people can come meet and pet our dogs. If there’s ever one that we organize, it’ll be posted on our social media. Come visit us then!”
With 1,000 registered student organizations (RSOs) at Illinois, the possibilities are endless. To learn more about Illini Service Dogs and how you can get involved, check out their website and socials below.