Who let the dogs in?

It's easy to spot Bella. She has dark shiny hair that's complemented by chocolate-colored eyes. This fabulous fashionista wears a purple and gold bow with just a touch of rhinestone bling. A festive yellow bandana completes her ensemble.

Bella the dog
Bella the Labrador retriever is a service dog in training for Retrieving Freedom, Inc. in Waverly. 

Waverly native Bella works on campus with Danielle Sharar, a UNI criminology major who also lives in Waverly. When Bella's workday is done and her red "In Training" vest comes off, she gives a gentle sigh while enjoying a well-deserved scratch behind the ears.

Bella the Labrador retriever is a service dog in training for Retrieving Freedom, Inc. (RFI) in Waverly. RFI trains Labrador and golden retrievers for placement with veterans with disabilities and/or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and children with autism.

Sharar's parents foster Bella in their Waverly home. While they're at work during the day, Sharar brings Bella to campus, which exposes the Lab to a variety of sights, sounds, smells and situations. Remaining focused and in a service mindset is all part of Bella's training.

"My professors have been wonderful about having Bella with me in class," said Sharar, who made sure she got their approval beforehand. She said her classmates are sometimes distracted by Bella (who can resist that cute face!) and are kindly reminded that they should not pet Bella while she's working and wearing her red vest. And Sharar refrains from snuggle time as well.

"I don't want people to think I'm horrible if I seem strict," said Sharar. "But it's not about [giving in to] that moment. It's about training Bella for the rest of her life with a new person."

During their six months together, Sharar works with Bella on learning basic commands like sit, down and stay. She also teaches Bella to eat out of a hand only, instead of noshing on what the pup might find on the floor or a tabletop. Mastering these commands will put Bella in good stead when she begins working on retrieving behaviors with an RFI trainer.

At RFI, Bella will spend six to 12 months working on advanced skills that will match the needs of the individual she'll eventually be placed with. These skills can include such things as retrieving items from grocery store shelves, opening a clothes dryer and removing the clothes, and finding a child who has become separated from his or her parents.

"All of the dogs in Retreiving Freedom have a different character, just like people," said Sharar. "But all of the dogs want to please."

When their time together comes to an end, Sharar said the experience of returning Bella to RFI will be bittersweet. "We know the dogs are not ours to keep," she said. "They're too special to just be a companion, though, and waste their talent."

The eventual goodbye is a bit easier to accept because Sharar knows there are always more retrievers and future service dog owners she can help.

"I'm drawn to helping people and helping facilitate their needs," she said. "And I like having a chance to see the outcome of what I do. How many volunteer experiences can you have that gives someone a new beginning."

Learn more about Retrieving Freedom and how you can get involved by visiting www.retrievingfreedom.org.

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