ST. BONAVENTURE — When most freshmen are taking the year to get adjusted to new class schedules and college life, Rachel Hoag accomplished all that and still found time to establish a new club on campus with a very important focus — helping service dogs in training for veterans and individuals with disabilities.
This past spring, Hoag coordinated a volunteer trip for St. Bonaventure University students to the kennels owned by New Hope Assistance Dogs Inc. Then, during finals week she worked with New Hope to bring their service dogs in training onto campus as a way to help students de-stress.
"Throughout the week people saw the fliers posted on the notice boards," said Hoag. "They know I love dogs, so they would tell me, 'Rachel, there are going to be dogs on campus!' and I got to say, 'I know, I organized it!'"
An Erie, Pa., native and class of 2021 biology major, Hoag chose to attend St. Bonaventure for its quiet, welcoming atmosphere and the rave reviews she heard through the years from her two older sisters, aunt and uncle, all of whom are alumni.
With dreams of becoming a veterinarian, Hoag initially had reservations. While other schools had established vet programs and clubs, she realized Bona's offered something entirely unique — a blank slate.
"I am really happy I came here because I can make it my own," she explained.
No stranger to forging her own path, Hoag encountered a similar challenge as a child.
"I was always bothering my parents for my own dog," she said. "Even though we always had dogs in the house, none of them were mine. One day my mom and I were watching the show 'Too Cute!' (on Animal Planet) and there was a segment on German Shepherd puppies being trained to be service dogs. My mom looked at me and said, 'You could look into that and just do some research.'"
Entrepreneurial by nature, Hoag dove immediately into researching more and eventually came across New Hope, located in Warren, Pa.
"They've placed over 100 service dogs, and have done a lot of work, but since they're so small a lot of people just don't know about them," Hoag said.
She wasted no time approaching her parents with an idea.
"I came to my parents with this proposition of being a puppy raiser," she said. "It was kind of a loop-hole in getting my own dog. It would be hard to say no to a girl who wants to raise service dogs."
After talking more with the organization, she and her parents drove to the kennels for an interview. A chain of events provided a surprise for the family, as they ended up driving home with a 3-month-old Dutch Shepherd puppy named Elphie.
The organization has requirements of their puppy raisers, and Hoag and Elphie had to learn the ropes together. Fortunately her mother has experience training dogs and was able to help guide them through the process.
"Elphie had so much energy," Hoag recalled, "My family likes to joke that she bullied me sometimes. One time I had a lollipop in my mouth, she came up, took the end of it and took it out of my mouth and ran away."
Time passed quickly, however, and before she knew it her job as a puppy raiser was complete and it was time to send Elphie for the next stage in her training.
"After she left, I cried so much," said Hoag. "The worst part running through my head was that she didn't know what was going on, so she thought I abandoned her."
Although her parents tried to gently remind her she knew this was part of the process, the experience was so painful for Hoag she considered walking away from the program. But everything changed when she got a call from New Hope with an update.
"They said she was placed with a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder," said Hoag. "They also showed me pictures. It was one of the most amazing feelings in the world. Even though I am never going to meet this person, I still had a hand in improving his life somehow."
Seeing Elphie working in the job she helped train her for was a turning point, and in the years since, Hoag has helped train three more service dogs.
"As time has gone on, it's becoming less sad to say goodbye to them and more rewarding to hand them off," she said. "You're more proud when you're done with them, rather than miserable because they're leaving."
Although she had to step away from the puppy raiser program when she started college, Hoag was determined to continue helping New Hope.
At the suggestion of her father, Hoag got in contact with the Student Veterans of America club on campus, who she thought might be interested in partnering with her as she established a new club based around the service dogs. Met with overwhelming enthusiasm, she then spent the semester emailing and meeting with the other organizations and individuals on campus needed to start her club officially.
"It's helping me become a leader," said Hoag. "I never really thought I was before. It was really cool that we got to bring the service dogs on campus. I was watching Snap Chat stories and there were so many snaps with the dogs in them. I was happy that I could help with that."
Hoag has huge plans for her club over the next few years. This semester, she hopes to organize regular trips for students to volunteer at New Hope. She would also like to begin a program where the dogs visit campus for the day via student sponsorship. Long-term goals are to host dogs on campus throughout the year in special housing and ensure the program continues beyond her time at Bona's.
Learning how to get out of her comfort zone and approach new people with ideas has also paid off for Hoag's professional pursuits.
"I had a paid internship this summer that I found just by calling people and being really persistent," she said. "(Everything I am doing) is a lot of individual work, but I am happy because it is helping me grow."
But at the core of it all, it is all about the dogs for her.
"I have always loved dogs and being involved with service dogs has just made me love them even more because I have found a way to help people by doing what I love."