Twenty Service Dogs and Their Owners Benefit from UMM Training Program
Kathy Hecht, third from right, stands with some of the participants in this year's service dog training program held at UMM. This is the second year Hecht has instructed the training program and a related course on the Machias campus.
Derrick and his dog, Stassi, participated
in the service dog training program at UMM.
MACHIAS, Maine – For the second year in a row, the University of Maine at Machias ran a unique summer program to help individuals with disabilities train their pet dogs to be service animals. The program, made possible through a grant from the Maine Community Foundation’s Maine Charity Fund, provided training in obedience, public access, and specific tasks for 20 dogs and their owners.
After the success of last year’s pilot program in producing eight working service dogs in Washington County, funding was increased to allow the program to assist an even greater number of participants.
The dogs in this year’s program ranged in size from a tiny toy Yorkshire terrier to Irish wolfhounds and will be aiding their owners with a variety of disabilities. Participants of the program were grateful for the training opportunity and the renewed relationships with their freshly trained companions.
The youngest participant in this year’s program was five-year-old Derrick who, with the assistance of his mother, Lisa, trained a seven-month-old beagle. Derrick was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of three. After reading about last year’s training program in the newspaper, Lisa called instructor Kathy Hecht to discuss her needs and ideal dog breeds for the job.
Lisa was interested in finding and training a dog that could alert her or anyone nearby if Derrick’s blood sugar reached dangerous levels. “I knew I needed to find a special dog to do an important job, which is to help me safeguard my son’s heath,” she said.
After Derrick and Stassi are fully trained and become a working team, the dog will accompany the boy to school.
Karen, a participant who suffers from mobility issues, says that the training has given her more confidence. “Even though my dog, Rufus, has had quite a bit of obedience training, both of us have learned how to further advance the training to help me,” she said. “Rufus has been working with me on going up and down stairs, which is very difficult for me. He has also been able to brace his body to help steady me when I lose my balance or when I try to get up from a sitting position.”
Gudren and her dog, Eva, work on climbing
stairs on the UMM campus.
Although the grant funding was originally intended to assist people living in Washington County, many individuals from outside the area inquired about the training program. Because the need for service dogs is so great, the free group training was expanded to include disabled individuals who were willing to commute to Machias for the program. Several participants traveled over 100 miles every week so that they could receive the training.
One of those participants was Linda, who drove from her home in Hancock County to the Machias campus on a weekly basis. She was looking to replace her aging service dog when she learned about the UMM program from her congressman’s office. With the assistance of Hecht, Linda was matched up with an Irish wolfhound named Erin.
“Erin helps me with mobility issues, and also with the PTSD [Post-traumatic stress disorder] that happened after a home invasion and beating,” said Linda. “She senses when I am going to have a problem and will get me out of the situation, or distract me to refocus on her, until the moment passes.”
Service dogs can be trained by an agency, a private individual, or the disabled handler themselves. Due to the increasing demand for service dogs, the high cost, and the lengthy waiting period associated with many agency-trained dogs, Hecht says that providing owner training programs has become an essential need.
“The program at UMM also ensures that both the dogs and handlers have the training and knowledge needed to work as exemplary service dog partners with training rivaling that provided by an agency,” said Hecht.
To be included in this summer’s training program, participants attended a series of information sessions last spring and then their dogs were temperament tested to ensure they were appropriate for service dog and public access work. Once selected, participants began basic training around campus followed by administration of the Canine Good Citizenship (CGC) test, which tests for basic obedience skills such as walking on a loose leash, sitting, staying, coming when called, interacting with a friendly stranger, and reactions to other dogs and distractions. Upon successful completion of the CGC test, the program progressed with public access training and specialized task training to assist the individual handlers.
“These dogs will now be able to assist their owners in maintaining their independence while helping them to deal with the challenges that are part of living with disabilities,” said Hecht.
Participants in the service dog training at UMM practice walking
in the hallway of Torrey Hall.
Hecht will teach a class for UMM this fall called Animal Behavior and Service Dog Selection. 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 to assist with specific disabilities. Many of the program’s recent 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.
The course may be of interest to students majoring in animal science, special education, psychology, or social work, as well as any individual who is interested in service dog usage either from a support or advocate position or for someone who would like to select and train a service dog for themselves.
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.