This week from August 6th to 12th is International Assistance Dog Week. It feels especially meaningful for Hunter Van Pelt, a Fredericksburg man who recently received an assistance dog from Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit organization that provides highly trained assistance dogs to children and adults with disabilities.
The special week, which runs through Saturday, is designed to raise public awareness of the daily heroic deeds of trained assistance dogs and to honor the trainers and puppy raisers behind them.
Van Pelt and Wyoming hit it off from the beginning.
During a two-week training session at CCI’s Northeast Regional Center in Medford, N.Y., Hunter had the opportunity to work with several dogs, but instantly felt a connection with the 2-year-old yellow Lab/golden retriever cross.
“We picked Wyoming, but she also picked us,” said Hunter’s wife, Melody Van Pelt.
Wyoming has been trained to respond to more than 40 advanced commands. She helps Hunter, who has cerebral palsy, with all of his daily needs—from tugging off his socks to opening doors and picking up things on the floor. She even helps Hunter button his shirt and can hand him the end of her own leash.
“She can pick up just about anything—it could be a straw, keys or a medicine bottle cap,” Melody said.
Hunter and Melody agreed that they don’t know where they would be without Wyoming. After their family dog died about six years ago, they began exploring the possibility of getting a service dog and learned about CCI.
After submitting an application and completing a face-to-face interview, they were placed on a waiting list for five years. Melody said they coped with the long wait through the support of friends, family and co-workers. They understood that raising and training these dogs is no easy feat, and only four out of 10 dogs actually make it through the program.
Hunter said Wyoming was well worth the wait. She has already made a huge difference in his life—both physically and emotionally—and the two share a very special bond. She also has made it easier to interact with people in public. When they go out, Wyoming serves as an ice-breaker and takes the focus off Hunter’s disability.
“All eyes are no longer on me when we go out in public,” Hunter said. “They are on the dog.”
Debra MacKenzie, senior director of development at CCI, explained that the organization breeds all of its assistance dogs. Volunteer puppy raisers across the country take care of the dogs and teach them basic commands from the time they are about 8 weeks old until they are about 16 to 18 months old.
At that point, the dogs are sent to a training facility where the organization’s professional trainers spend about six months teaching the dogs advanced skills that build upon what they learned in their puppy homes. During that time, the instructors evaluate the strengths of each of dog, and then match them with potential handlers.
The handlers meet the dogs during a two-week program at one of CCI’s training facilities. Here, the handler learns everything they need to know—including grooming, commanding and feeding, among other things. The program also gives the handler a chance to bond with the animal.
“Our dogs are special,” MacKenzie said. “The bond is deeper than a typical pet. It is a special type of bond you don’t see every day.”
Hunter said the two-week training session was like boot camp. From 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., they participated in daily lectures, exams, practice and public outings. At the end of every day, they were exhausted, but they learned a lot.
“The training session was hard, but I think the real learning started at home once we were on our own,” Melody added.
Hunter said they are very grateful for the donors who make the organization a possibility. There is no charge for the dog, and CCI covers all of the costs associated with breeding, raising and training.
CCI maintains ownership of the dog until it is ready to retire. At that point, the handler is given the option of adopting the animal. Hunter and Melody plan to adopt Wyoming once she shows signs of being tired of working.
“She is amazing—she really is,” Hunter said. “I don’t know what I would do without her.”
Popularity of Assistance Dogs Growing
Over the past several years, assistance dogs have become increasingly popular.
MacKenzie said CCI increases its placements each year, and about 5,457 human-dog teams have graduated since the organization was founded in 1975.
Unfortunately, accompanying the rise in popularity of assistance dogs are scams that abuse the system and threaten the reputation of legitimate assistance dog providers. MacKenzie said assistance dog fraud is a growing problem.
With the click of a button, anyone can purchase a service dog vest online and put it on a dog, whether that animal has received proper training or not. Phony certifications are also readily available.
“It takes more than a vest to make an assistance dog,” MacKenzie said. “CCI’s dogs receive months of rigorous training so that they can perform specific commands and effectively assist people with disabilities.”
Some people put service vests on their dogs simply to circumvent rules, such as prohibitions against pets in shops or restaurants. Other buy these items for the purpose of selling fake service dogs who have not received training to provide services to those with disabilities.
MacKenzie explained that these scams impact the integrity of reputable assistance dog providers, such as CCI. The public’s perception of a service dog can be skewed by animals that are not trained properly, resulting in discrimination and loss of access to public places in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
This has certainly been Hunter and Melody’s experience. One day, they were out walking Wyoming when another dog wearing a service vest lunged at Wyoming and began barking. The dog’s owner pulled at the leash with all of her might, as Melody tucked Wyoming safely behind her.
It was clear to Hunter and Melody that this dog was not a true service dog. They explained that a trained service dog knows it is time to work as soon as the vest goes on. For example, when Hunter takes Wyoming into a restaurant, she sits quietly under the table and people will remark that they didn’t even know she was there.
“That is how it’s supposed to be,” Melody said. “That is what they are trained to do. In a restaurant, a service dog should not be barking or eating food off the floor or even moving around.”
While most people and businesses have been very accommodating of Wyoming, Melody and Hunter worry this will not always be the case and that the rise of these scams could make the experience of taking a legitimate service dog out in public more difficult.
“It is not a game for us,” Melody said. “This helps give Hunter independence.”
To avoid these scams, MacKenzie recommends that those interested in obtaining a trained assistance dog turn to a reputable organization. She also said to be on the lookout for dogs that don’t obey commands in public or act aggressive.
“When the dog is in public, it should be well-behaved,” MacKenzie said. “Assertive or aggressive behavior is often a tell-tale sign that dog is not certified and has not gone through extensive training.”
Source: Fredericksburg News
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