Even if the old expression “the dog ate my homework” doesn’t apply to a college student’s canine companion, another likely does: “The dog ate into my budget.”

With pet food alone costing hundreds of dollars per year, that phrase rings true even for volunteers raising puppies for good causes like the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, said Vanessa Barker ’20. 

As a leader of UMD’s Terps Raising Pups chapter, she prepped three pups to become service dogs for people with visual impairments or post-traumatic stress disorder. Now, the recent grad is helping others offset kibble costs, vet bills and more through Pawsible Inc., an organization that provides financial support for volunteers raising future assistance dogs. With 13 chapters across nine states and growing, Pawsible was granted nonprofit status in November and seeks to grow and develop the puppy-raising community nationwide.

“We were learning that some puppy raisers were actually heavily in debt for school and were going further into debt so they could volunteer puppy-raise,” said Barker, the organization’s CEO and president. “We wanted to make sure that we could help in some way.”

Pawsible started as a Terps Raising Pups project in March 2019, when Barker and co-founder Cate Law ‘19 noticed that some fellow volunteers, while eager to teach their puppy pupils basic obedience and acclimate them to different environments, were struggling to cover costs. The pair applied for one of the Do Good Institute’s mini-grants, which provide up to $500 for student-led proposals with positive social impacts, and later earned additional funding by winning the Showcase Audience Choice Award in the 2019 Do Good Challenge

Abby Queen high-fives her dog, with both wearing graduation capsThat support allowed Pawsible to grow beyond UMD into the greater D.C. area, and Barker’s access to the Do Good Accelerator’s collaborative space, mentorship and training as a two-time fellow helped the project expand nationally, bringing together puppy-lovers from several universities and states.

“As I was graduating school and as I was leaving my puppy-raising group, I was looking for further ways to kind of keep my ties to this amazing community,” said Abby Queen, Pawsible’s director of marketing and a University of Georgia alum. “I kept looking into Pawsible … and here we are six months later.”

Aside from grants and other donations, the nonprofit has held fundraisers, selling items like raiser-designed, pup-themed laptop stickers, and it recently launched an online shop with Pawsible-branded clothing, mugs, phone cases and more. That’s allowed the group to award about $5,000 so far to volunteers in need.

Especially for a college student’s budget, every bit helps. Kibble costs around $400 a year, the Pawsible team estimates, and if vet visits aren’t covered (some parent nonprofits, like the Guide Dog Foundation, take care of medical bills, but others, like Canine Companions for Independence, don’t), those can add thousands more.

And most raisers have their pups for closer to 18 months due to the pandemic, said Katie Carr, Pawsible’s director of communications and a University of Pittsburgh student. COVID-19 and the economic downturn compounded cost concerns, whether limiting how much parent nonprofits could contribute or by more directly impacting students’ personal incomes.

“We were having to deal with volunteers that didn’t really have a lot of certainty in front of them,” Barker said. “Our financial assistance was just one thing to kind of give them a safety net when things were probably the most unpredictable.”

In addition to the monetary support, Pawsible has developed a blog to share experiences, Facebook and LinkedIn groups to easily connect and network, and an interactive map to find puppy-raising opportunities nationwide. This semester, the team also launched an internship program to introduce more potential volunteers to the cause.

“We want to be able to unite (puppy raisers’) voices and bring people together in as many ways as we could possibly do,” Barker said.