Chemistry Major Brings Service Dogs to Pitt

Emma Oaks wearing plaid shirt over yellow t-shirt being licked on the face by a service dog in trainingLearning that everything she had ever seen, touched or breathed came from 118 elements made from invisible atoms was a revelation that informed the rest of Emma Oaks’ life.

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So much so, that the multitalented 21-year-old chemistry major finds time between research duties and a 17-credit term her senior year to write odes to the motion of particles.

“One of my poems is about how electrons are always moving at the speed of light. And I’m asking them, ‘How do you do this? Where do you get your energy?’ Well, it’s kind of because they are energy. And no one really knows where they get it. That’s why it’s so fascinating,” she said.

But when she’s not writing poetry or working in the lab, Oaks is known as the “puppy girl” across campus — an identity that’s taken more energy than she could’ve dreamed.

In 2017, Oaks founded Perfect Fit Canines Campus Scholars — a student-run arm of service dog training nonprofit, Perfect Fit Canines Inc. The group aims to help people with disabilities live healthier, happier lives with the assistance of trained pups.

Student volunteers teach the the dogs to focus on a specific task designed to assist someone who has a specific disability. The dogs live with students and are taken to classrooms and other public settings to prepare them for what’s to come once they’re placed permanently. After the training is complete, the dogs go to individuals with conditions like PTSD, autism spectrum disorder or cardiac conditions. For instance, cardiac alert dogs sense a severe drop in blood pressure presaging a heart attack.

Oaks had her first experience raising a service dog as a senior in high school and wanted to do it again when she arrived at Pitt, but there wasn’t a program in place. So, she took it upon herself to create one.

Since she made that decision, Perfect Fit Canines Campus Scholars has brought nine service dogs on campus. They attend lectures, follow their trainers to labs and practice riding city buses.

Working her way through Pitt

Originally from Las Vegas, Oaks found her way to Pitt after attending high school in Harrisburg. In a move designed to solidify her independence, Oaks came to Pittsburgh, secured an off-campus apartment, got a job to pay the bills and dove headfirst into her studies.

“I never lived on campus. I wanted to make the jump to real, capital-A adult,” she said with a chuckle.

During freshman and sophomore year, she worked at Starbucks 30 hours per week, then added a few extra hours shadowing researchers in professor Steve Weber’s bioanalytical chemistry lab. After scrambling to multitask one term, Oaks found a way to leave the coffee shop for good.

“I asked Dr. Weber if he would pay me in his lab and he said ‘I’d rather you do chemistry than coffee,’” she said.

Going from working nearly full time at Starbucks to around 20 hours per week at the lab brought some relief, but by the time Oaks began the year-and-a-half long process to form the canine club during her junior year, the stress of all her obligations started wearing her down.

Starting the Perfect Fit club required dozens of meetings with campus administrators, who were initially skeptical of allowing the dogs into the classroom, she said. She also had to establish ground rules with Perfect Fit Canines Inc., recruit students to train dogs and educate the public about service dog training and accessibility rights — on top of increasingly rigorous requirements for her chemistry degree.

“I was constantly communicating with people or setting up interviews. I never didn’t have something to respond to or review. Things blew up so fast and I wasn’t prepared at all,” she said.

The pressure was enough for her to consider giving up on more than one occasion, said Jeff Aziz, a lecturer and adviser in the Department of English.

Aziz served as Oaks’ faculty adviser for her English literature minor and got to know her during a study-abroad trip to Prague and throughout the process of creating the canine club.

“This was a challenging project. She was working with students that can be relied upon to extent that undergraduate students can be relied upon, and it took work to get the University to recognize that they could let students train in classroom settings without compromising the educational goals of the classroom or the University,” Aziz said.

“It took a great deal of effort, and there were times when she was very frustrated, times when she said ‘I don’t know why I’m doing this.’ I told her it’s often the case when things are difficult, but if something is really worth doing, you have to work through frustrations,” Aziz said.

Oaks said she started seeing signs of her effort paying off after she got her service dog, a black Labrador retriever named Aiden who started training at 8 weeks old.

Puppies, it turns out, are a great recruitment tool.

“We had an informational meeting where 200 or more incoming freshmen showed up wanting to know about the club. We have become pretty notorious since then,” she said.

Now, the club is up and running with six new officers and red-vested Labradors perched in classrooms across campus.

Moving forward

With the impact of her work established and graduation quickly approaching, Oaks has taken a step back from Aiden and the organization. She passed along day-to-day responsibilities for the club to sophomore Amira El Sawi and, with great difficulty, handed Aiden over to another trainer so she could concentrate on finishing school.

At the end of her academic career, Oaks is proud of her accomplishments but ready to focus on the future. Last year, she presented her work on molecular separations at the Pittcon conference on analytical chemistry in Orlando, Florida. This year, she’s hoping to continue that work with a chemical company.

And, while she doesn’t see working with service dogs as a career path, she is thankful she was able to teach the Pitt community how critical dogs are to the lives of those with disabilities.

“It’s important people know how to interact with them or not to interact with them. They’re doing lifesaving work and you could jeopardize someone’s life by distracting a service dog,” she said.

“I keep hearing people say ‘Hey that’s a service dog, you’re not supposed to pet them.’ I love when I hear that.”