Campus canines

Polar Paws volunteers show off their trainees for the group’s founder, Matt Sutton.

Polar Paws volunteers show off their trainees for the group’s founder, Matt Sutton, back row, left. (Photo by Damaine Vonada)

Graduation Day, as it is for most who walk the stage to receive their diplomas, was a proud one for Matt Sutton last year.

Not only was he receiving his engineering degree from Ohio Northern University, but he also was able to showcase a program that has become part of his legacy at the Ada school.

Walking alongside him — and displaying her best puppy manners — was Primrose, a collie Sutton was raising for Polar Paws, a campus organization he had co-founded only a few years before. He was so proud of both the puppy and the program that he had placed a graduation cap on the dog’s head and led her across the stage; she made the walk like a pro.

Laying the groundwork

Sutton had set his sights on attending Ohio Northern when he was in seventh grade, after he toured the university with his older brother, Scott, who also studied civil engineering there. “ONU has a gorgeous campus, and it’s surrounded by corn fields,” he says. “Because I grew up on a farm, it felt like home.”

The fact that Ada was reminiscent of home also was important to Matt’s father, Harold Sutton, who still runs the farm where his family has raised cattle since the early 1900s. Following in both his father’s and mother’s footsteps, Harold Sutton is on the board of trustees at Carrollton-based Carroll Electric Cooperative, and, in fact, has been the board’s president since 2005.

With such close ties to his electric cooperative and its principles that include concern for his community, the younger Sutton started looking for ways to put his passions to work for a good cause, almost as soon as he got to Ohio Northern. That was when he and some of his like-minded, animal-loving friends founded Polar Paws.

Filling a need

Polar Paws is a group of ONU volunteers who foster puppies for the 4 Paws for Ability University Program. 4 Paws for Ability is a Xenia-based nonprofit that provides trained service dogs to children with disabilities and to veterans who have lost their hearing or use of their limbs. By donating their time to raise service puppies, university students make 4 Paws dogs more affordable for recipients.

Currently, Polar Paws has 34 members who serve either as puppy raisers or puppy sitters, according to Polar Paws adviser Sharyn Zembower, an ONU instructional designer.

As service dogs in training, the pups accompany their handlers everywhere, including class and campus events — such as graduation. At ONU, they’re even allowed to live in the dorms. “Under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), the puppies can go anywhere,” Sutton says. “They have equal access rights like humans.”

Lasting impression

Polar Paws students train about nine dogs every school year, according to Zembower, and the program has supplied 4 Paws with more than 30 trained service dogs since its inception.

Now employed as a transportation engineer in the Indianapolis area, Matt Sutton still keeps tabs on Polar Paws, and he is helping the group plan an on-campus service dog park. When he attended ONU’s homecoming last September, he brought along his new pet black Labrador, Daisy, that he’s schooling in keeping with Polar Paws’ curriculum. “I got Daisy because of a black Lab named Ziggy I trained for Polar Paws,” he says. “Ziggy was the best dog I ever had, and after fostering him, I had to have my own black Lab.”