More Than Puppy Love: Student Works With Service Dog in Training

Mike Morlacci

posted February 02, 2018

Humphrey, a Labrador Retriever mix, is a service dog in training, under the care of Pitt-Johnstown student Cierra Smetana. (Kayla Carr photo)

Cierra Smetana, a Pitt-Johnstown sophomore business marketing major, is teaching while she is learning. Smetana’s instruction is not student teaching or tutoring. Her curriculum is more of the sit, heal, and stay command variety. She is working with Humphrey, a Labrador Retriever mix, in a service dog training program.


They work daily, on campus and off, in preparing Humphrey for a life as a companion that will assist people with disabilities.

“Most people don’t know that you aren’t supposed to pet or distract service dogs while they are working,” she says. “So I feel really mean when I have to say ‘no, you can’t pet him right now,’ but that’s what I have to say.

“Someday, he is going to be a service dog, but right now, he’s still just a puppy.  He’s still learning and everywhere he goes with me he’s working. So when he’s off duty, I think it’s important that he still gets those fun puppy times.”

The training is a dedicated process, which she says comes about naturally.

“Dogs have been everything to me for pretty much my entire life,” says Cierra. “I grew up with my childhood dog, Lexi, and she passed away last spring.  Since then I’ve just been kind of lost without having a dog. So, I started to volunteer and stumbled upon the service dog program.

“I knew it was what I wanted to do because it allowed me to raise a puppy that will someday go out into the world and actually help someone who really needs it.”

Cierra worked with Health and Counseling Executive Director/Disabilities Specialist Shelly Peruso, to gain approval for Humphrey to be on campus. While Paws for Pitt (the project’s working title) is still in the exploratory phase of club registration, Student Activities and Engagement Director Heather Bloom Hall noted the service dog program had a presence at a recent Student Involvement event.

“Right now, (the project) is just a learning experience for me and the campus, but in the future I think it has a lot of potential to grow,” Cierra says.

She will work with Humphrey for two years. He will then move to an advanced program.

“I think every dog is special,” Cierra says. “But Humphrey is unique because he has a big life ahead of him. He isn’t just a dog; he’s a dog that could save someone’s life.”

The University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown is marking was founded in 1927 and is the first and largest regional campus of the University of Pittsburgh. Pitt-Johnstown is recognized by the Princeton Review as a “Best in the Northeast” college, by G.I. Jobs as a “Military Friendly School,” and by Pennsylvania Business Central as a "Top 100 Organization.” The distinctive combination of Pitt-Johnstown’s people, programs, and place results in exceptional performance in preparing students for career and professional success. Pitt-Johnstown is the regional leader, educating for success in the Real World.