If you attempt to pet Zola the Labrador — and you will– prepare to be kindly but firmly rebuffed.
Katie Brigger said most students, faculty and other people she and the pooch encounter on their walks across Penn State’s campus are content to mind their own business. But there are exceptions.
“It can be hard for me to tell them not to (pet Zola),” Katie said.
Her dog’s baleful brown eyes are far from Katie’s biggest problem. As a toddler, she experienced a series of bilateral strokes and was diagnosed with a cebrovascular disorder called moyamoya disease.
Katie, now 20 years old, has limited fine motor skills and uses a wheelchair to travel long distances.
Zola came into the picture last June, after Katie’s application was given the stamp of approval from Susquehanna Service Dogs — and her roommates.
“My husband and I wanted to wait until she was old enough to take on the responsibility herself,” Katie’s mother, Heather Brigger, said.
The trade-off goes a little something like this: in return for closing locker doors, unzipping coats and pressing the handicap button at doorways, Katie provides Zola with a steady supply of treats and verbal affirmation.
Oh, and also nights off.
“She’ll go get a squeaker toy and run around the whole house,” Katie said.
When she’s not unwinding with a rousing game of fetch, Zola is what in an office might pass for an enthusiastic go-getter. On some mornings, Heather will catch the dog waiting patiently at Katie’s feet, ready to start the day.
“She’s very eager to work,” Heather said.
Travel is one of the perks of the job. Each week, Zola accompanies Katie to the classes that she’s enrolled in at Penn State’s University Park campus.
Both are participants in the LifeLink PSU program, a partnership with the State College Area School District Department of Special Education that offers students the opportunity to experience college life before entering the workforce.
Zola is the district’s first service dog to join a special education student in class — and teacher Marla Yukelson doesn’t seem to mind the company.
“It’s all we can do not to pet her,” Yukelson said.
That, if you’ll remember, is a big no-no when Zola is on the clock and it’s up to Katie to lay down the law.
Yukelson thinks the added responsibility has helped Katie grow more confident and assertive, which will be a huge asset when she leaves school behind for good next spring.
“She needs to advocate not only for herself but for Zola,” Yukelson said.