UC invention helps train service dogs

When volunteers at the nonprofit 4 Paws for Ability in the Dayton suburb of Xenia are looking for enrichment experiences for their puppies, they turn to a toy that has entertained millions of toddlers around the world.

With sales of 500,000 per year, Little Tikes’ Cozy Coupe is considered the best-selling car in America. And it was the 1979 creation of a former University of Cincinnati industrial design student Jim Mariol.

That struck another UC alumnus, Gary Hellmann, as a nice coincidence when he began volunteering at the nonprofit to train service dogs to help clients with medical conditions or developmental disabilities.

Gary Hellmann

Hellmann is a 1974 graduate of UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, where he learned from NASA astronaut and UC aerospace engineering professor Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. Hellmann recalls he got an “A” in the class.

Hellmann watched the puppies clamber around inside the molded plastic cars with a little amusement at the many connections the nonprofit has to UC. Like Hellmann, many UC students volunteer for 4 Paws for Ability, taking service dogs with them to class on UC’s campuses so they are exposed to a variety of new people and situations.

To introduce the puppies to novel experiences, they have the youngest puppies explore the little yellow and red Cozy Coupes.

“We work with the puppies on a few basic commands like sit, down and high-five and help them learn how to go up and down stairs and ramps,” Hellmann said. “We want to introduce them to new experiences and different sights and sounds. The Cozy Coupe is a little confined, so they’re a little more hesitant about getting in and out.”

Coupe creator Mariol was an industrial design student in UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning when he was hired as a co-op to sketch automotive designs at Chrysler. After just three years at UC, Mariol was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army during the Korean War.

After his service, he started his own design consulting company in Cincinnati. That’s when he began working on a car for toddlers that has become an American classic.

“When I was a kid, I always wanted a pedal car. I remember seeing them in the department store, but Mom and Pop could never really afford one of those. So I thought this is the time to design one,” Mariol said in a 2009 interview.

Mariol died in 2020.

In 1976, he approached Ohio toy company Little Tikes about his idea and soon they were making a prototype that would sell more than 20 million units around the world. Today, it comes in varieties like ice-cream truck, princess and ladybug along with the classic red and yellow version that has graced driveways and sidewalks for generations.

“I get a kick out of seeing Cozy Coupes all over the place,” Mariol said.

It’s just one of dozens of toys Mariol designed in his career.

“Maybe it’s because of growing up during the Great Depression,” Mariol said. “I didn’t have many toys. I had them in my head.”

Lynn Williams, training director for the charity 4 Paws for Ability, said her group has been working with UC students since 2017. New volunteers are welcome, she said.

“We teach the dogs basic manners, socialization. The students take them everywhere,” she said. “We typically place dogs around eight weeks. They come back for advanced training at one year.”

Hellmann, an engineering analysis student at UC, co-oped at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s Foreign Technology Division near Dayton, Ohio. But his bosses there were not a fan of his long locks, which were all the rage in the 1970s.

He found a new passion in wind tunnel and flight testing and never looked back.

“Some of the technology I worked on ended up in commercial and military airplanes,” he said.

After his retirement, he began volunteering for 4 Paws. Hellmann said it makes him happy to contribute his time to working with puppies. Some of his most recent recruits were named for astronauts in the Apollo missions, including a Labrador retriever mix named Armstrong.

“I’ve seen videos and testimonials of the difference these dogs make in people’s lives,” Hellmann said. “It’s just amazing.”

Story by UC’s Michael Miller originally appeared at https://www.uc.edu/news/articles/2022/05/service-dog-charity-has-multiple-connections-to-uc.

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