–by Mary Helen Darah
The Ability Center’s Assistance Dogs for Achieving Independence program is in need of volunteers, especially Puppy Raisers. Assistance Dogs is a program of The Ability Center, an organization that advocates, educates, partners, and provides services supporting people with disabilities to help them thrive within their community. The Assistance Dogs program supports, trains and places service dogs, therapy dogs and school therapy dogs. Throughout the pandemic, the agency has continued to keep all dogs on track for graduation, thanks to technology that allowed them to train virtually.
Assistance Dogs Puppy Raiser volunteers are needed to play an important part in training puppies that are 10 weeks old. The role requires a lot of time and effort since the pups have a variety of needs and the energy to learn and explore. Volunteers are asked to provide a safe home for a puppy for 10 weeks.
Also, new handler training classes, class observation, puppy orientation classes and a home evaluation/visit is required for this position. This time period is about helping the puppy to develop good habits through engaged supervision while laying the foundation for communication with the puppy through consistent training.
Puppy Raisers also attend weekly classes and outings with their assistance dogs. Progress reports, communication with the training staff, working with assistance dogs mentor and transporting the puppy to outings and vet appointments is a requirement. Puppy Raisers can choose to stay on as their puppy’s foster to finish their Service Dog training.
Fosters are also needed and serve a vital purpose to the Assistance Dog Program and its mission. These volunteers house, train and nurture the service dogs in training from 5-9 months of age to up to two years. Their mission is to love, care and socialize their service dog in training along with providing training at home, during outings and in group training classes. They work closely with the assistance dogs training team to learn cues, manners, appropriate behavior and how the dogs will help in the future, either by being placed with an individual with a disability or in a school program. The complete care of the dog is the responsibility of the foster family including grooming, feeding, exercise, safety, health and socialization. Many foster volunteers believe the payback is knowing they made a difference in the life of someone living with a disability to become more independent.
Fosters attend New Handler classes, observe a training class, observe an outing and have a home evaluation/visit before receiving a dog. Once they receive their service dog in training, they attend weekly one hour group training classes with an assistance dogs trainer and their dog in training. The lessons are designed to help the dog build upon the foundation behaviors with the help of the reinforcement and training at home with the foster family. A foster is never alone in this learning process as the assistance dogs canine services team provides a constant link, help, and answers throughout the training process. All expenses are covered by the program.
Sylvanian David Grana and his family are Puppy Raisers. “We are raising a puppy named Quincy,” stated Grana. “I actually started working with the center last November. I took classes and training. I received my first puppy in February. Things are going fantastic. We are doing excellent. He lives with us in our home. A lot of the time, he is like a regular puppy but on top of that we train every day, multiple times daily. As he gets older, we will incorporate his training in our day to day activities. Once a week we go to Assistance Dogs (ADAI) and work on skills that we build upon. Every week we work on something new.”
Grana will be the first to tell you that the role comes with some challenges but the rewards far out weigh them. “Quincy is a puppy with normal puppy issues. He is very smart. He wants to work and wants to learn. In spite of issues that come with puppyhood, he has been absolutely fantastic. It’s been an extremely rewarding experience. The people at the Ability Center and Assistance Dogs (ADAI) are amazing. They are with you every step of the way. They are great people doing great things,” he said.
The question that Grana continuously gets is how he and his family will be able to give up their pup. “When Quincy is trained he has to be given up,” he stated. “Every moment I’m not working, I’m with him. Quite honestly, it is going to be a sad day. But I tell myself he is a great dog who will help someone for a higher purpose. In the end someone is going to need Quincy. They are going to get a great companion.”
Grana said he would highly recommend the experience to anyone that can help out. “They need volunteers in so many capacities. It is a wonderful organization and I will 100 percent do it again. Seeing the end result makes it all worth it.”