Maple Grove Puppy Raisers Aim to Help the Disabled
When Geena, a 10-month-old Black Labrador, enters the Maple Grove Community Center with her puppy raiser, Kolleen Herr, heads turn, children smile and people nod. Her silky fur and puppy visage make it impossible for kids not to run up and pet her. But this petite raven-haired beauty isn’t there for a play date; she’s on the job.
Geena sits at Kolleen’s feet and keeps her attention directed towards her even though two tables full of exuberant kids are eating sandwiches from their bag lunches just a short distance away. When just for a second she gets distracted, Kolleen says matter-of-factly, ‘Watch me,’ and Geena is instantly back on task.
And that’s exactly how she is supposed to behave.
“Assistance dogs have always amazed me,” says Kolleen, who is a volunteer for Can Do Canines, an organization that places dogs at no charge in homes with people who have diabetes, seizures, hearing loss, autism, or mobility issues. She was assigned Geena at nine weeks old, and will have her until she’s trained and ready to be matched with a client, which usually takes about two years.
Kolleen socializes Geena, teaches her a wealth of skills, and loves her as her own. But because she is preparing her for her permanent home, Geena is not allowed on the furniture and has to sleep in a crate, as it is easier to get a dog to sleep on a bed once they’ve been crate-trained as opposed to vice versa.
“Other than that, she’s just a regular pet at home,” says Kolleen.
And that will make that handing-over day very bittersweet.
“I’m challenging myself to really love something and be able to give it up,” she says. “It’s going to be hard, but to see the joy on the client’s face, and to know that it actually can be a life-saver for them, will make it all worth it.”
Jo Sorensen, part-time office assistant and foster home training volunteer with Helping Paws, another assistance dog organization that has placed approximately 160 dogs to date, is about to say goodbye to her two-year-old charge, Captain.
Captain almost mastered the 70 skills necessary for graduation, including fetching numerous objects from the floor, opening and holding doors, taking clothes out of the dryer, removing socks from someone’s feet, getting shoes, mail and newspaper. He’s ridden the light rail, eventually an MTC bus, the walkway at the airport, elevators, and goes to the dentist, hair salon, sporting events; he’s been on busy streets, quiet avenues. Turns out, Captain is a man about town.
But Jo knows how it will feel when she packs up Captain’s signature jacket cape, his leash, his crate, and says goodbye to the gregarious Golden Retriever that has filled her heart and home for two years, because she’s been here before.
“I felt naked after my other assistance dog, Sky, left,” she says. “I was by…but now I know what she’s doing, and it makes it all right. I know that I made a difference.”
This making a difference is what drives Helping Paws and other service dog organizations.
“A service dog can radically impact a person’s life for the better,” says Pam Anderson, Director of Development for Helping Paws. “Among other things, it makes them feel visible again; they are seen as a person. The dog is an icebreaker, a conversation starter, because as able-bodied people, we often don’t know what to say, so we don’t say anything; the dogs help with that. And, not to mention the dogs give them a purpose and, ultimately, become their best friend. That’s what we really love to see.”
Now that is making a difference.
Interested in becoming a puppy trainer? Helping Paws and Can Do Canine are always looking for puppy-loving folks who want to make a difference. For more information, visit can-do-canines.org or helpingpaws.org.
Brendan Loney, who suffered a spinal cord injury in a diving accident in 2009 and is now a quadriplegic, is the recipient of a Helping Paws service dog named Rio.
"I couldn't ask for a better dog," says Brendan. "He helps me in so many ways, from picking up the remote to opening doors to getting my parents if I need something; he's there whenever I need him. And, the bond between us is priceless."
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