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University of Tampa will recognize service dog as 'honorary nursing student'

21-year-old Leigh Dittman will graduate from the University of Tampa nursing program on May 7 with honors. Her service dog, Nerf, will walk alongside her.

TAMPA, Fla. — Tampa native and University of Tampa nursing student Leigh Dittman is poised to graduate in May with honors. It's a credit to her studiousness and grit, and also to her loyal service dog, Nerf. 

"He is with me every day. He goes with me to every class," said Leigh of Nerf. 

After sitting through lectures and countless hours of studying at the University of Tampa, Nerf has more than earned the title of "honorary nursing student".

"My professors love to joke and ask, you know, 'How much did Nerf study? How much did Nerf work on homework?'"

Leigh and Nerf were paired up by the non-profit service dog organization "Canine Companions" just before she started college in 2018. 

According to its website, Canine Companions is "leading the service dog industry so our clients and their dogs can live with greater independence. We provide service dogs to adults, children and veterans with disabilities and facility dogs to professionals working in healthcare, criminal justice and educational settings."

There is a two-week training process for the recipients of Canine Companion service dogs which includes pairing up with a dog and learning to work with them. Leigh said she and Nerf had an instant connection during that training. 

"I knew pretty much from the first day that I met Nerf that he was going to be my dog," said Leigh. "He has been such a joy and a blessing in my life and I knew it from day one."

Leigh credits Nerf for giving her the independence she desired throughout her college experience. 

"With going to college, I knew that I wanted to do it all myself. It's hard to be a functioning adult when you're relying on other adults," said Leigh. "So that’s where Canine Companions came into my life. I knew that I needed a dog to help me with activities and that’s how I ended up with Nerf."

Leigh was born with a bone disorder known as "brittle bone disease". Being prone to fractures, her mobility is limited, and that's where Nerf comes in. 

While Nerf is trained in approximately 40 commands, the two primary commands Leigh says she uses with Nerf are "get", where he picks up things she may have dropped, and "pull", where he helps pull her chair up inclines. 

Graduation and Leigh's transition from nursing student to RN will mark a new chapter for the pair.

"Right now, I don't take him with me to my inpatient settings and that's personal choice," Leigh said. "No one has told me I wouldn’t be allowed to take him. Everyone has been very open-minded to me taking him, but I just wanted to make sure that I was fully 100 percent focused on the patients and learning."

She's still navigating how Nerf will fit into her professional life, as she hopes to work at a Tampa-area hospital with women or children.

"I'll revisit it when I get a job and see if there's a situation where he comes with me to my job and stays in the breakroom in a kennel where he is safe and secure," Leigh said.

But for now, at least one plan is set in stone, and that's to celebrate all these two have accomplished thus far. 

"He will be with me when we walk across the stage at graduation. He's been here every step of the way so he deserves a little bit of that recognition too."

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