12:48 p.m.

One Day Apprentice: Julie Greene Coleman ’92 and Tomkin Coleman ’91

By John Noltner

The small bungalow on a St. Paul corner lot has gone to the dogs—and that was precisely the plan. It’s where Julie Greene Coleman ’92 and Tomkin Coleman ’91 live and operate their nonprofit company, Pawsitivity, which trains rescue dogs to be service companions. “Rescuing dogs to rescue people,” says Julie.

The Colemans currently share their house with three dogs. Quinn, a golden retriever, is their family dog. Greta, a Newfoundland, and Dandy, a greyhound, are training to be service dogs. Since it was founded in 2012, Pawsitivity has graduated 23 dogs. It takes roughly a year for a dog to complete training. At times, a dog is not suited to the work and, while there have been no failures at Pawsitivity, dogs sometimes have what Tomkin refers to as a “career change” and are adopted out as pets.

Julie and Tomkin are both accredited trainers, but Julie does most of the hands-on work while Tomkin focuses on fund-raising and other aspects of running a nonprofit. “When we first start training a dog, we limit the sessions to a few minutes,” says Julie. “The dogs are ‘learning to learn’ and often tire quickly. We make sure to end on a high note and give them time to rest and process what they’ve learned. As their training advances, we have longer, more complicated training sessions. We keep logs for each dog so that we can track their progress and watch for what comes easily to them and what they struggle with.”

Although Julie and Tomkin knew each other at Carleton and had mutual friends, they never dated. When the two were reacquainted at Julie’s 15th reunion in 2007, they quickly became inseparable and married in April 2008.

Carleton also has played an important role in how Tomkin, a theater major, and Julie, a psychology and art history major, approach their work. Tomkin remembers theater professor Ed Sostek telling him that breaking new ground—in any profession—works best when someone with vision leads the way.

And Julie learned an important lesson from art history professors Lauren Soth and Alison Kettering: Don’t just study what’s in front of you—think about what or who hasn’t been included. Which questions haven’t been asked or addressed?

“A huge part of our job is solving problems, adapting, and thinking critically,” says Julie. “Carleton taught us those skills and gave us the confidence to form a nonprofit.”

“We love helping people reach their potential to live fuller, more independent lives with the assistance of a service dog,” adds Tomkin. “We also love rescuing dogs and making their lives better.”

  • 10:30 a.m.Dandy practices a “touch” cue with Julie. “The touch cue is a useful tool. For instance, you can lead dogs onto a scale at the vet’s office, or use it to focus a dog who is too aroused,” says Julie. “It is also a springboard for more advanced training, such as turning on a light.”John Noltner

  • 10:41 a.m.The Colemans use a Gentle Leader (or head halter) with their dogs. “As long as a dog is walking with a loose leash, the halter just sits on her face,” says Tomkin. “If she starts to pull, she’ll feel a gentle pressure on her nose. We get the dogs used to wearing a head halter through positive reinforcement.”

  • 11:21 a.m.Pawsitivity relies on a network of partners and volunteers for support. Here St. Paul veterinarian Jen Seidl gives Greta a checkup. “Our partners understand our particular circumstances and unique needs,” says Tomkin.John Noltner

  • 12:48 p.m.Dandy visits the Yellowbird Coffee Bar. “After the dogs have learned basic skills such as ‘sit’ and ‘down,’ we take them out for ‘public access’ training,” says Julie. “We expose them to restaurants, stores, airports, crowds—as many stimuli as possible—so they always feel safe and can respond to cues, no matter the environment.”John Noltner

  • 2:05 p.m.Julie and Tomkin visit Bailey, who has been with the Wills family since 2013. Fourteen-year-old Henry, who has autism and is partially blind, has responded well to the dog. “Before he got Bailey, Henry would sometimes bolt into a busy street or parking lot,” says Julie. “He doesn’t like holding hands, but he doesn’t mind being tethered to Bailey. Also, where Henry previously would grow impatient and have a meltdown, he now uses Bailey to soothe himself.John Noltner

  • 3:39 p.m.In 2015 Julie and Tomkin had a second bathroom with a dedicated dog-washing tub installed in their basement.John Noltner

  • 4:24 p.m.Service dog candidates are fed once a day, at dinnertime, because they’re offered so many food rewards during the day. “We train the dogs with food, toys, and praise,” Julie says, “which keeps the learning process fun and positive for the dogs.”John Noltner

  • 4:39 p.m.Julie and Tomkin use Zen mats to help the dogs learn self-control. They can sit, stand, or walk around as long as they stay on their mats. Mat training helps modify behavior during mealtimes and company visits, or if the dog is agitated and needs time to calm down.John Noltner

  • 5:10 p.m.Greta and Dandy visit a neighborhood park for training in a new environment. “We practice ‘watch me’ cues in locations [with a lot of noise and activity],” says Tomkin, “to ensure that the dog will focus on the handler regardless of what else is going on.”John Noltner

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