Over the past five years, Sandy McConnell ‘97 has trained over 1,000 dogs, including 20 for therapy and service roles, like full-time UMassD employee Gracie, at a company she founded and owns in Dartmouth, Southcoast Dog Training & Care. Between each dog’s network, she’s probably made a positive impact on tens of thousands of human lives just since 2017.
Desire to make a difference
McConnell has been giving back in one way or another her entire adulthood, joining the U.S. Army National Guard in Alabama when she was 22 years old, where she first acquired a passion for training.
"I joined the Guard because I really wanted to feel like I was making a difference in the world. I had developed instructional training experience in the military, which I really enjoyed because I was able to help people improve their skills, and open up more pathways for themselves," said McConnell. "After this experience, I knew I wanted to dive deeper and explore a career in training, so I took up human resources management in the Charlton College of Business."
Human resources management
A degree in human resources management not only teaches creative, psychological, "right-brain" skills needed to train and develop others, but fully ingratiates students into the analytical "left-brain" financial, accounting, and business operations curricula necessary to effectively manage a startup company. A year after graduating from UMass Dartmouth, McConnell bet on herself, starting companies in computer training, and later as a fitness coach on the SouthCoast.
"Getting to train people, regardless of their industry, job experience, or physical well-being, was so rewarding because I was able to help them achieve their goals and become better versions of themselves," said McConnell. "Studying human resources management definitely taught me the sociological and business lessons needed to run my own companies for the last 24 years."
Coming up on a quarter-century later, she remains her own boss today.
After 16 years training humans, McConnell began volunteering as a weekend service puppy raiser for the National Education for Assistance Dog Services (NEADS) training puppies to assist people with physical and psychological disabilities.
"NEADS' service dogs are brought up by inmates in prisons throughout weekdays and nights," said McConnell. "NEADS then asks for volunteers on the weekends to introduce them to all the sights, sounds, and smells of the world they'll eventually help their humans navigate, and skills like picking things up, turning light switches on, getting medication, grabbing beverages from a refrigerator, getting help, alerting to alarms, retrieving and carrying items, and so much more."
McConnell successfully raised two dogs for NEADS before being assigned to Homer, the chocolate lab pictured below:
"Homer had some medical issues that prevented him from carrying out some service duties, so I ended up adopting him myself," said McConnell. "Service dogs have to be locked in on helping one person in need of assistance, but Homer loves people and other dogs, making him a natural therapy dog. He's great at comforting others and spreading joy, and he knows a lot of fun tricks that put smiles on peoples' faces."
Having her own dog meant McConnell was no longer able to raise future service puppies on weekends, as they need individualized attention. With skills in training humans and dogs alike, and after developing such a passion for raising dogs to aid humans' physical and psychological well-being, McConnell founded Southcoast Dog Training & Care, which has been named to SouthCoastToday's "Best of the Best" pet trainers for the last four years. The company, located less than five miles away from UMassD's campus, trains pet dogs, as well as therapy and service dogs.
Returning to campus
Sandy and Homer are regular guests on campus, joining assistant director of the STEM learning lab, Chris Peter and STEM "lab lab", Gracie for "StressLess" days, organized by the university's counseling center once a month during fall and spring semesters, and making special visits during events like convocation, finals week, and commencement to ease students' nerves.
"Science has shown that petting therapy animals can improve a person's mood via the release of oxytocin and serotonin," said Peter. "Therapy dogs like Gracie and Homer offer love and acceptance to everyone. Students can be themselves, whether stressed, happy, or sad. They're accepted as they are, and people instinctively feel this mood-elevating interaction."
"Coming back to my alma mater and seeing students light up while interacting with Homer and Gracie is so intrinsically rewarding," said McConnell. "It makes me feel good that I can help put a smile on someone's face. It's a lot of fun for them and for us as well."
Students interested in seeing "Canine Corsairs" Homer and Gracie on campus should keep an eye out for "StressLess" days in the university event calendar. Fall stress-less days are tentatively scheduled for Sept. 28, Oct. 19, and Dec. 6 from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in the Grove, around the upstairs fireplace and lounge. Dates and times are subject to change.
Students interested in visiting a therapy dog on other days can schedule office hours with Gracie via TutorTrac. Visit the STEM Learning Lab webpage and click the "schedule appointment" button in the top right corner to view open appointments.
Dog owners interested in McConnell's services can visit SouthCoastDog.com for more information regarding services, rates, and scheduling.