For service dog training, there’s no place like home

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This is the last in a two-part series about service dogs and the benefits they provide to humans. The first part was published in the July 9 issue of the Weekly, and may be accessed online at ubne.ws/1cwhgD9.

Service dogs aren’t born knowing how to assist people with disabilities. They must be trained to recognize situations where their human needs help or to be alerted about something. The most effective method of training service dogs is to have the person they’re helping directly involved in the tutelage.

Heritage Service Dogs, an Oregon nonprofit corporation, is an agency located in Milton-Freewater. The agency, operated by Barb Pierce, breeds AKC-registered standard poodles specifically to work with the disabled, and also assists people with disabilities through the process of selecting and training their own service dog.

They are currently working with people who have a variety of conditions, including seizures, diabetes, stability, autism, PTSD, auditory impairment, anxiety, sleep disorders, visual impairment, Asperger’s, back injuries and limited mobility.

Their current clients’ dogs include poodles, Chihuahuas, border collies, bull terriers, Labs, golden retrievers, Great Danes, Yorkies, Jack Russells, dachshunds and a few of questionable heritage. Their clients are from the local area as well as across the country.

It is Heritage Service Dogs’ belief that puppies raised in their forever home and trained by their family are much more secure, and many times instinctively pick up on needs within days or weeks of placement.

Consider Frosty, one of their local service dog placements, who exceeded any of their expectations when he went to his new home at 8 weeks old. Frosty’s new charge was a 3-year-old autistic boy. On the dog’s second day on the job he began barking, alerting the boy’s mother that her son had choked and was not breathing — literally saving his life. Within a few days Frosty had discovered just how close was close enough without upsetting his new little boy, and was helping to distract and comfort him during bath time. At 7 months old, Frosty continues to prove his worth by alerting the mother, redirecting, comforting, building confidence, entertaining and drawing out verbal skills from his little charge.

Another Heritage client lives in Tennessee and has need of an auditory alert service dog. When Rusty — a 3-month-old standard poodle puppy — arrived, she was already in their program. On the long trip home from the airport, the new owner was able to settle Rusty down under the table when they stopped to eat at a restaurant. Within a few days he was alerting her to sounds that she was not able to hear. Rusty is 6 months old now, and he already alerts to knocks at the door, buzzers and people, and lies quietly by her desk at work.

Training your own service dog is no walk in the park, Barb told me. She provides the tools, but you have to do the work. Immersion training allows you to work on social skills and training every day, for a few minutes at a time. You establish a solid bond and personal relationship with your dog that will last a lifetime. Puppies are ready for a basic obedience training class by about 4 months of age, and on to advanced obedience training shortly thereafter.

Heritage’s clients are scattered throughout the United States, so the handlers are required to find a reputable “hands-on” obedience training class in their area. Most service dog agencies require you to travel to their location for an extended period of training. With this program the handler learns how to train and handle their own dog in their own real-world environment.

Service dogs can be any breed and any size. A 5-pound Chihuahua or a 100-pound German shepherd could both work as medical alert dogs. Service dogs are not required to wear identification or have specific certification. They are, though, required to work specifically assisting someone with a disability. They are also required to behave in an appropriate manner, and their handler is required to maintain control of their service animal.

In Walla Walla County, 30.7 percent of households have a member with a disability. In Umatilla County, it’s 37.1 percent. Approximately one-third of these people with disabilities live alone. Many of these people would be blessed by having a service dog to assist them. I hope this message will help people living in our area realize just what freedom an assistance dog may give them.

Ernie Jones, a registered nurse who retired due to vision loss, can be reached at 529-9252 or at theolcrow@charter.net.

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