Graduation looms for nursing student, service dog in training

Graduation looms for nursing student, service dog in training

URBANA — Nursing student Blake Butler first began fostering a service dog in training named Circee when she was just a 10-week-old puppy who still needed to learn the basics of dog living.

Now, just months before both he and the 20-month-old are set to graduate — Butler from the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Nursing, Circee from the Illini Service Dog program — Circee can tug open a refrigerator, jump up and turn on light switches, pull off socks and push buttons to get doors open.

And when Circee puts her skills to work in a new home helping someone with a disability, Butler is going to miss her.

"I'm way attached to her," he said.

"The reason I know it's going to be OK is she's going to change someone's life for the better."

Fostering and training a service dog isn't the first thing the 22-year-old Butler has done to help make life better for somebody — or some dog.

A native of Downers Grove, he was doing service work before he ever started his college years.

He was a volunteer at his local Humane Society shelter, where he walked dogs and helped with feeding and cleaning kennels a couple of days a week. Each Tuesday morning at 5:30, he volunteered at a shelter for the homeless, helping serve breakfast and doing clean-up work there before school.

Who inspired him to do volunteer work? Mom and Dad.

"My parents are very service-oriented," Butler said.

His mom, for example, is a volunteer for Watts of Love, which delivers solar lighting to places around the globe in darkness.

Butler grew up in a family with one older sister and both parents working in business fields. He played football and baseball, loved science and also had a dog at home, a yellow lab named Buzy (pronounced "boozey"), until she passed away.

He started out in college a business major, then switched to kinesiology and was considering another switch to pre-med before deciding nursing was the field for him because he was drawn to the patient care side of health care.

He also continued doing service work at the UI, volunteering for Illini Service Dogs and the UI campus Love Your Melon crew.

Illini Service Dogs is a program that allows college students to train and foster service dogs from puppyhood to placement for people with disabilities. Love Your Melon is an apparel brand run by college students across the U.S. that strives to put a hat on the head of every kid with cancer across the U.S.

This semester, some members of the local Love Your Melon crew will also be visiting the homes of some local kids with cancer and a Ronald McDonald house, he said.

Butler said volunteers with Illini Service Dogs need to demonstrate their commitment, helping out with the dogs in training, before they can become a primary foster themselves. He and Circee, who is a black lab and border collie mix, share a home with 12 of his friends, and "they love her," Butler said.

Circee is also attached to him, Butler said, so the transition to her new home with a person with disabilities will be taking place gradually over several months.

Beyond the UI, Butler said he's considering plans to continue his education, possibly to become a mental health nurse practitioner, but he plans to do some nursing work first after graduation. He's had an informal offer to work for Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where he did his internship, in oncology pending passing his licensing board exam.

Before that, he'll be taking part in an APEX Experience trip to Beaver, Utah, as one of 160 college students across the U.S. who were selected by Love Your Melon to take part in several days of leadership training and change the world idea-sharing. To be considered, Butler submitted his idea to change the world.

What he proposed was pairing older shelter dogs that have a tougher time getting adopted with mental health patients being discharged from hospitals on antidepressants who are at higher risk for suicide. He'd like to create a mental health program that puts each patient in charge of a dog (under supervision) for the dog's care, with patients returning for outpatient therapy involved in the dogs' care and possibly even able to adopt the dogs if they develop good connections with them.

Animal therapy decreases depression and anxiety, Butler said, and for these patients, "it would give them a reason to get out of bed, and keep them from being bored."

Louann Lord, a UI nursing clinical instructor who taught Butler in a mental health nursing course, said she met him last fall and recognized him as a standout in a college that is full of good students.

He's a compassionate, creative person and a real "go-getter," she said.

"He's just got this passion for people, and it's awesome to see," Lord said.

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sweet caroline wrote on February 27, 2016 at 10:02 am

Blake, you are without a doubt one of the most wonderful people I've ever read about.  I'm in total awe of your goodness.  With each paragraph of this story, I'd think "it can't get any better than this," and then it did!  What a compassionate, selfless young man you are.  All of your volunteering, all of the love you've made a lifechanging difference in the lives of every human and animal you've helped.  A nursing career really is the perfect career for you.  Best wishes, Blake!

andrewscheinman wrote on February 27, 2016 at 11:02 am

What a fantastic story, what a great program, and most of all, what a great person and a beautiful dog!

sergy wrote on February 28, 2016 at 4:02 pm

It is great idea to make dog help people.