No matter how Emily Wentland moves her head or hands, Gunner’s eyes never leave her face. Conversely, she can never tell those eyes “No.”
The miniature American shepherd would ignore his master anyway and try again until he gets the treat.
But usually, Wentland, a Purdue University Fort Wayne senior, makes Gunner earn his prizes by helping others. The duo loves visiting schools, libraries, and retirement homes where the licensed therapy dog entertains and brings smiles to everyone.
Wentland is a biology major studying pre-veterinarian courses. This 2023 Top 50 designee started training Gunner to do tricks when he was 9 months old, beginning with playing dead. He’s 8 now and his catalog includes around 100 tricks, some of which are crowd stunners.
Gunner can act shy, dance along to a song, do a model crossover walk, and even pull off a handstand. He can also paint.
If Wentland can think of an idea, she’ll start working on it with Gunner. Maybe the toughest routine is when she lies on her back with her legs straight up and Gunner rests on her shoes. He fell and broke two pairs of her glasses before they perfected this one. They also run every day, usually with Gunner setting the pace.
“He knows a ton of tricks, and kids love that,” Wentland said. “We try to teach kids to start training their dogs and some of the benefits such as mental and physical outlets for the dog, increasing connections between the owner and the dog, and the animal’s confidence and trust.
“We normally go in, and I’ll introduce him, and a lot of times we’ll do our trick show, do a demonstration, and then they’ll ask questions before he makes his rounds to greet everyone. He loves kids and will just go hang out with them.”
During the upcoming spring semester, Gunner will serve as a therapy dog on campus. He's calm enough to let anyone love on him – as long as Mom is nearby.
“I initially started working with him in order to improve his problems, and through that process, we formed an unbreakable bond – and I knew he was meant to be mine,” Wentland said.
Growing up on a northwest Ohio farm, Wentland was an 11-year 4H veteran showing all kinds of animals. During one competition, the 9-year-old found a new passion after seeing a dog trainer perform. She’s traveled across the country to show dogs and later got a job at the Northeastern Indiana Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Hospital, working full-time over the summer, overnights on Fridays, and picking up extra shifts when the staff is short-handed.
“When Emily was giving medications to patients, it would be common to see her petting and kidding patients to show that she cared for them,” said veterinarian Kevin Lockman. “This empathy always translates to owners when managing a case. Owners can see your compassion and that you are usually more willing to provide optimal care for their pet.”
Lockman said even on her worst days Wentland brings joy to everyone around her. That’s another of her passions. Mental health issues are huge challenges for veterinarians who are often overworked and constantly stressed. Wentland is an officer for PFW’s Agriculture and Preveterinary Club, which has held fundraisers and events to help address the issue.
Wentland said she’s had her own struggles with mental health growing up, but training dogs gave her a healthy outlet and helped her improve.
“Hopefully, someday, I can be a strong arm for my coworkers and peers to lean on,” Wentland said. “Seeing first-hand the burnout rates and mental struggles that vet-med brings has only made me want to pursue it even more.”
Her goal is to help bring animals into the world, set them up for long, healthy lives, be a voice for the voiceless, and be a caretaker in their final hours.
“Emily is always willing to advance her knowledge in every aspect of veterinary medicine to improve her quality of patient care,” said classmate Katie Henschel, vice president of the club who has also worked with Wentland at the clinic. “Emily is an amazing person with many talents.”
And Wentland is using Gunner and his skills to help others.
“Once you create that bond with your dog, you are never alone,” Wentland said. “You don’t have to worry about relying on people to be there for you because you have a good connection with your dog. I think it’s really fulfilling to help other people, to take the comfort the dogs have given me and share it with others.”