Making the Grade: UMM Program Provides Training for Service Dogs and their Owners
MACHIAS, Maine – This summer, the University of Maine at Machias ran a unique program to help disabled individuals train their pet dogs to be service animals. The program, made possible through a grant from the Maine Charity Fund, provided training in obedience, public access, and specific tasks for nine dogs and their owners.
With dogs ranging in size from a tiny toy Lhasa-poo to an Irish wolfhound, the trainings prepared the canines to assist their owners with a variety of disabilities and in navigating everyday life. Participants in the program are grateful for the training opportunity and the renewed relationships with their freshly trained companions.
Claire, whose 8-year-old dog, Georgia, was the oldest in the program, says “I think that having people with disabilities train their own pets as service dogs is an excellent idea. Georgia is making amazing progress. She is more attentive, obedient, and confident. The lessons I have learned will also help me in selecting and training my next dog when Georgia has to retire, but for now having Georgia as a service dog helps me stay independent.”
“I’m so thankful for this program,” said Vickie, whose dog, Star, is learning to assist her. “I knew a service dog would be helpful and this has made it possible and affordable for those of us with low incomes.”
“Living with multiple sclerosis, service dog training provides an opportunity to teach Mickey to retrieve dropped items that I have difficulty picking up myself,” explains Maureen, whose dog was the smallest in the group. “Mickey has learned to calmly meet other dogs and people and is well behaved as he accompanies me to physical therapy appointments and shopping at places like Wal-Mart.”
“This is an awesome program,” exclaims Joan. “We are learning to achieve more independence with our best friends.”
Service dogs can be trained by an agency, a private individual, or the disabled handler themselves. However, because of the increasing demand for service dogs and the high cost and the lengthy waiting period that is associated with many agency-trained dogs, providing owner training programs has become an essential need, especially in a rural and economically challenged state like Maine.
The Maine Charity Fund grant has provided extensive training, specialized equipment, and specific veterinary services for the program’s first participants, all of whom attended an information session last spring and whose dogs were assessed as having the temperament and ability to be trained for working in public.
“These dogs will now be able to assist their owner in maintaining their independence while helping them to deal with the challenges that are part of living with disabilities”, said Kathy Hecht, the program’s trainer. Hecht also serves as a UMM instructor and is a graduate student in social work at the University of Maine.
As someone who lives with disabilities and uses a service dog herself, Hecht knows first hand just how valuable a service dog can be. She has trained service animals for more than twenty years.
“I started training service dogs when my dad lost his vision to a degenerative eye disease,” said Hecht. “He was so unprepared for the challenges he was facing and so uncomfortable with having a disability that he would walk around town with his white cane folded up in his pocket. My mom was so afraid that my Dad would be hit by a car, so I retired one of my show dogs and retrained the dog to work as a service dog. This was a gift of pure love for the man would do anything in his power to help me, and it remains one of my most treasured accomplishments.”
As word of mouth grew, Hecht was asked to train other service dogs. She now has animals trained and working in several states across the nation. She has also assisted her clients and the public with service dog education and advocacy assistance.
Hecht will teach a unique class for UMaine-Machias in the fall semester called Animal Behavior and Service Dog Selection, which is available via interactive television (ITV) for remote viewing at sites across the state and also offers hands-on lab classes at several campuses. The course is designed to teach students about the expanding roles of service dogs, the regulations regarding their usage, and how to support and advocate for individuals who use service dogs, as well as how to find and train an ideal canine candidate best suited to assist with specific disabilities. Many of the recent program’s owner and service dog duos (and others from across the state) will be partnering with the students in the lab classes to work on training dogs for specific tasks.
“I am simply amazed at how this program grew from a conversation to classroom demonstrations in my Learning & Memory classes into a stand alone course, and now into seeing some local folks with disabilities being able to use their dogs for service,” said Lois-Ann Kuntz, associate professor of psychology at UMM. “I am delighted to be able to lend my support to this valuable work and look forward to further growth with more student participation.”
For more information on service dog training or the Animal Behavior and Service Dog Selection course that will be taught at UMM this fall, contact Kathy Hecht at 207-323-4460.