From the outside, it appears to be a typical house—chairs on the deck giving it a comfortable feeling, until a knock on the door breaks the silence, spurring a succession of eager barking. A chewed–up dog toy lies out on the rug in the living room. Some dog food sits in a pouch on the side table. Maui, a hybrid Golden Retriever and Labrador who regularly turns heads on the sidewalk, treads across the room, wagging her tail excitedly. But Maui is no pet, as Malia Szyman (N '20) will tell you.
Maui intently chews on a bone in the background as Malia eagerly talks about Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), the nation’s largest service dog training organization. Headquartered in Santa Rosa, CA, where Malia grew up, the organization breeds puppies until they are eight weeks old, and then sends them to puppy raisers. Over eighteen months, the puppies are taught a list of required commands and rules, and then sent to advanced training for six months. They even learn how to go to the bathroom on command.
Demonstrating a few of Maui’s many talents, Malia reaches for the pouch of dog food as she asks Maui to speak. After a few quiet moments (this was a command she had just learned, after all), Maui utters a few sounds and is happily rewarded with a piece of food. Malia enthusiastically encourages Maui through every command, the passion for her work resonating in her voice.
Malia dreamed of training a service dog for CCI since second grade, building her obsession as she paged through book after book about dog training. Growing up with a disabled younger brother also had a major impact on Malia, furthering her love and appreciation for the organization. Her dreaming phase was brought to a halt in her sophomore year at Penn when she decided she was ready to be a puppy raiser, and adopted Maui.
Most mornings, Malia takes Maui out of her kennel, fills up Maui’s food bag, and bikes to class while the dog scampers along by her side. Maui attends Malia’s classes and dance practices with West Philly Swingers, quietly lying down under a table and taking the occasional nap. Since Maui is now well trained, only six months away from advanced training, she is disciplined enough to obediently follow instructions and remain calm. Whenever Maui has her CCI vest on she must always act like a service dog, but at home she can relax and go to playdates with another CCI dog on campus.
Caring for and training a service dog is difficult work, and Malia admits that she has to limit how late she stays out at night studying, or how often she can go to club retreats and other events because of Maui. However, Malia remains committed to her goal: “It is hard and there is a lot I have to sacrifice for her, but I didn’t get her to make me happy. It’s not about me”.
Service has always been a huge piece of Malia’s life, since she firmly believes that life is about making sacrifices for someone other than yourself. This belief is the main reason why, last year, she created "Step Up,” a club designed to educate and encourage people to get involved with service dogs.
Currently, there are four CCI dogs on campus that the club helps raise, including Maui. About fifty people are already involved with the club. Meetings are held twice a month, and volunteers can do everything from taking the puppies on walks to actually training the puppies by working on commands with them.
During meetings, the group will split up into training circles and work with each of the dogs on their newest command, working together to help the puppy improve. Malia never intended to start a club, but says that “I just saw how much people loved getting to see Maui, and I think a lot of people miss their dogs when they go to college,” so volunteering with the puppies is a nice break and also a great way to learn about service dogs.
Malia notes that CCI “gives people with disabilities social access that they wouldn’t normally have,” suggesting that an interaction as simple as someone asking ‘can I pet your dog?’ could “all of a sudden make these people visible again and make people want to go talk to them instead of avoiding them.”
Over winter break in the airport, a woman came up to Malia and asked to say hello to Maui. Dressed in her signature yellow CCI vest, Maui could not react as a pet since she was on duty, so Malia had to politely decline. The woman then mentioned that she was a graduate (matched with a service dog), and just wanted to thank Malia for her work.