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Dogged Pursuit

Alumna Olivia Poff crosses street with dogCAES alumna and puppy raiser Olivia Poff crosses the street in New York's Central Park with Charlie, the "TODAY" show's Puppy with a Purpose. Photo by Nathan Congleton/NBC

Charlie arrives at 30 Rockefeller Plaza at 6:30 each morning to prepare for his appearance on national television.

After a morning routine with host Matt Lauer, he waits in the Orange Room through the 7 a.m. hard news block before taking the plaza stage outside the studio at 8 a.m. There’s an 8:30 a.m. appearance with Lauer or host Carson Daly, the filming of 9 a.m. teases with celebrities, then 10 a.m. downtime in the studio before returning home unless a trip to an NBC affiliate or video “pupdate” for social media is required.

Charlie is the “TODAY” show’s “Puppy with a Purpose.” University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences alumna Olivia Poff (BSA – Animal Science, ’11) is responsible for him.

Poff is a guide dog mobility instructor for America’s VetDogs and its sister organization, the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, both charitable organizations that provide guide and service dogs to U.S. veterans, first responders and civilians. However, for this project, she is Charlie’s puppy raiser. She started raising Charlie on national television last August, after “TODAY” sought out the organization to sponsor its second “Puppy with a Purpose.”

“He’s a good fit, a happy-go-lucky dog,” Poff said. “Not a lot fazes him.”

When they return home, Poff continues training Charlie. He will become a service dog for a U.S. veteran. He’s learning to push buttons and lights with his nose, to retrieve dropped items, and to tug to open doors or pull off covers.

Poff thought she wanted to be a veterinarian and came to UGA for the animal science program. She rode on the university’s equestrian team and took on student work in veterinary medicine.

One day she approached a student who had a golden retriever wearing a yellow “Future Guide Dog” jacket in tow. She learned that raising a guide and service dog required no prerequisites. She just had to put in the time, energy and commitment to raising and training it. Her life changed.

“The first one I raised went to a veteran,” she said. “When I met the woman he went to and saw the difference he made in her life, that specific moment of puppy training is where my career path did a 180 (-degree turnaround) and I started pursuing (work in) the assistance dog industry.”

While still in college, CAES gave her credit hours for an internship with the Guide Dog Foundation. “They gave me the flexibility to do an internship that wasn’t veterinary medicine or farm animal production,” she said. “They allowed me the freedom to explore the boundaries of what I could do with my education.”

Her CAES education instilled in her the need to research and question everything related to dogs’ care to ensure training is done in the “most efficient, humane way possible.”

“It has helped me be inquisitive about canine cognition, how they think, and in my approach to training,” Poff said. “I was exposed to so many amazing professors who made sure I didn’t just spit information back, but made sure I understood why.”

Learn more about the puppy-raising program at UGA and its origins with a CAES student.

By Kathryn Schiliro