Most days, first-year UNI student Jacey Meier doesn’t have the luxury of waking up late. Not only does she have to get ready herself, but before she heads out the door, she needs to grab a leash, fasten a vest, and pack up her dog’s lab gear, which includes a protective sweater and goggles.
You read that right — her dog’s lab gear.
For 10 years, Meier and her family have fostered service dogs through Retrieving Freedom, a nonprofit dedicated to providing service dogs to children with special needs and disabled veterans. When Meier came to UNI this year, she knew she wanted to bring her current foster dog, Raven, along for the journey.
It’s made adjusting to college life a unique experience for the biology and biochemistry double major — and yes, part of that involves outfitting Raven in protective gear, including goggles and booties, when she accompanies Meier to her chemistry labs.
“I imagine it’s like having a kid,” said Meier. “You have to be really invested to do it right.”
But it’s worth it for Meier, an animal lover who, even as a first-year student, wants to do her part to make a lasting positive impact on the world. Raven, a 1-year-old black lab, is likely to end up being paired with an autistic child.
Service dogs are constant companions for autistic children throughout the day, helping calm them if they feel anxious, serving as a reassuring partner as they navigate their days, and keeping them from running towards danger or getting lost in public, which many children with autism are known to do.
“It’s really rewarding when we foster these dogs, because we see where they go and how they help the families that they go with,” said Meier, who is considering a career in medicine. “Seeing that just verifies why we do what we do.”
UNI’s policies follow Iowa Code, which permits that service-dogs-in-training be treated as service animals, so they are allowed across campus. Raven can stay in Meier’s residence hall, accompany her to class and her biology labs. She’s not the first service dog that has been in UNI’s biology labs, and UNI professors are happy to accomodate students who may need service animals.
“Students come in with a variety of different needs, and you just have to maintain some flexibility in order to accommodate those issues,” said Curtiss Hanson, professor in chemistry and biochemistry. “I had Raven in my lecture room last semester and that dog is so amazingly well-trained that I forget the dog was even there.”
A large part of service-dog training is discipline — teaching the dog to be disciplined enough to know when to work and when to play, and being disciplined enough to resist playing with an adorable puppy. This can be difficult, especially for a dog like Raven, who has a playful personality. “You can’t slack off because then the dog will slack off,” said Meier.
In about another year, Raven will go on to her forever family for specialized training to the family’s specific needs. For now, Meier is helping to make sure that the general training Raven has received sticks in real-life settings, including her mom’s second-grade classroom. In fact, according to Keegan Birkicht, Iowa unit director for Retrieving Freedom, Meier’s mom, Jessica, helped the nonprofit pilot a new program.
“The Meier Family have been instrumental fosters over the past decade,” said Birkicht in an email. “Jacey began her freshman year at the University of Northern Iowa with a plan to continue her family’s fostering tradition. We are proud to support Jacey and Raven through their journey, and can’t wait to see what both will do with their futures!”
Meier credits her family for teaching her the importance of making a positive difference in the world. Her parents were both four-sport athletes throughout high school and they passed their love of sports — and all the values sports impart — onto Meier, a three-sport high school athlete, and her two sisters.
The three daughters were among the first-ever wrestlers on Waverly-Shell Rock HIgh School’s girls’ wrestling team. “There’s so much with wrestling that I feel is different from a lot of other sports. It really comes down to — if you work hard, you’re gonna see results,” she said. “It teaches you discipline and confidence. Learning how to work and all those things that go along with wrestling, having those skills later in your life will be very beneficial.”
Meier packs a lot into each day. In addition to her rigorous schedule of classes, lab work and training Raven, she’s also a member of the Student Nature Society and UNI Rock Climbing Club.
“I like the variety,” she said. “I’ve really enjoyed my experience so far, and I’m really glad I made the choice to come here.”