story & photos by Tricia Dewey
Puppies, those amazing creatures. Their very presence reduces stress, brings joy, and generally improves one’s mood and health. Some dogs, specially trained as “service dogs,” bring out even more amazingness of both the human and dog variety.
“Is it OK if I pet your dog?” is always a good question to ask of a dog owner, but it is especially good to ask a dog owner whose dog may be working as a service dog. (If the answer is “no” don’t be offended!) How would you know if a dog is working as a service dog? You may not be sure unless the dog is in action in one of the many roles that a service dog can have including as mobility assistance, signal dogs for hearing impaired, medical alert dogs, and also helping with therapeutic service (PTSD, for example). Trained service dogs are different from pet therapy dogs, in that trained service dogs have been taught to do certain jobs that help a person cope with a disability. Trained service dogs have access to public places like hotels and restaurants under the Americans with Disabilities Act, whereas pet therapy dogs do not, in general, unless they have been invited.
A group of about 15 people in the Memphis area are volunteers for Canine Assistance Rehabilitation Education and Services (CARES), a nonprofit Center for Independent Living based in Concordia, Kansas. Founded in 1994, CARES helps ready service dogs to work with a person with a disability. These dog people, known as “foster puppy raisers,” help to socialize the future service dogs and reinforce their training. CARES has their own breeders of Labradors and golden retrievers and they also accept dogs that are donated by breeders or rescues.
Puppies start their training journey at approximately eight weeks old when they are sent to inmates at one of seven correctional facilities in and around Kansas who apply to work as specialized puppy trainers. While at the prison, the dogs are introduced to the training program developed by Sarah Holbert, CEO of CARES, Inc., that uses only praise and correction to produce learned behaviors. Once puppies learn their core commands they are ready to be placed in their next setting with a foster puppy raiser, which is where the Memphis group comes in.
Each member of the Memphis group is connected to the CARES program in a unique way. Barbara Edward became interested in the idea of service dogs because she has a granddaughter with Type 1 diabetes and she wanted her to see what it’s like to have an assistance animal. Barbara retired from nursing in 2012 and since then has been a foster puppy raiser for approximately 20 dogs. Even though she had never had a dog of her own she has become very comfortable with them and now would consider herself a dog person. She has raised Bernese mountain dogs, great Pyrenees, rescue dogs, and many others. “It’s funny when I have a puppy, at about six weeks in they start testing me and they test each handler, ‘maybe she forgot that I can’t get food off the counter.’ Because they are dogs. And it’s really fun, each dog has their own personality.”
The young dogs that live with the foster puppy raisers are already housebroken, know core commands, “and my part of the process is a secondary kind of step where they’re learning to be socialized in public. So when I get a dog they haven’t ever really ridden in a car with a person, been around children, or they certainly haven’t been grocery shopping or to church, things like that…. So they have to learn how to behave in public, they have to learn how to do their commands in public and not be distracted by other dogs or children, or cats, or whatever.” By the end of their stay with their foster puppy raisers they know around 55 commands. All the puppy raisers use the same terminology and techniques: positive praise for reinforcement and a strong correction or simple “no” to stop a behavior. “These dogs work for ‘good dog’ and a pat on the head,” Barbara says. Barbara’s granddaughter received her assistance dog in June and the dog was able to alert her to low blood sugar the first night they were together.
Jennifer Roy, local Memphis coordinator for CARES, got an email from a fellow dog agility trainer about 10 years ago saying that experienced dog folks were needed as puppy raisers. She has a disabled daughter and was interested in the idea. Since then she has raised 30 puppies. She thinks of the process of puppy raising as wins for everyone. She says the inmates do very good work with the dogs and it is an incentive for them to keep a clean discipline record in prison. There is an immediate benefit to dogs that are placed with a person with a disability. The dogs have an instant bond with their new owner. And in many cases the help that the dogs provide for their new owners is almost immediate. For example, for someone with PTSD “they kind of have someone on their side. A person who hadn’t been out to dinner in 19 years after one week with his service dog was able to go out and order a steak.” This is what motivates her. “People ask how do you give a dog up. Most of the time we can’t see someone’s life change in four days and this program allows you to see that. And it’s absolutely amazing to watch.”
Jocelyn Schulte is a high school sophomore who is just finishing raising her second dog. Her mom happened to meet one of the other local puppy raisers and gathered information from CARES about fostering. “The more she learns about what service dogs can provide for people,” she said, “the more eager I am to continue fostering. It’s been both a fun and rewarding experience watching the puppies grow and get placed with their forever homes.”
After they return to CARES for their “graduation” and transfer to their matching person, the dogs begin to learn any specialized skills for the particular service they will do, for example picking items up if they are working with a paraplegic or retrieving seizure medicine if working as a medical alert dog. Well over 80% of the dogs accepted into the program graduate to become someone’s service dog.
CARES is always looking for foster puppy raisers. It’s a woof-woof situation for everyone!