A Lending Paw And a Wag of the Tail Is All in a Day's Work
Training schools for dogs brings them into service for the disabled
PRINCETON, MASS. — Someone is pounding on the front door. Inside the apartment, Mica, a brown Pomeranian springs into action. Racing up to the door to check out the noise, she turns, dashes across the living room, and scoots around a corner into the bedroom. There, a person hard of hearing lies in bed, unaware of the knocking. Mica nudges her to get her attention, then leads her from the bedroom to the front door, as if saying, "You have a visitor." Mica does it all without uttering a bark.
"Good girl!" exclaims Rosie O'Connell, patting Mica for her flawless work and feeding her a treat. Ms. O'Connell is a dog trainer, and this scene is part of a staged learning session for Mica, with the trainer playing the role of a future owner and a volunteer playing the "visitor."
Mica's impressive performance is one of many that take place on the "campus" of the National Education for Assistance Dog Services (NEADS).
On this agreeable 12-acre complex, as many as 26 dogs at a time are skillfully prepared to help not only people who are hearing-impaired, but also those in a wheelchair or using walking aids.
Now entering its 20th year, NEADS is probably the oldest continuously operating place of its kind in the United States. The feeling it conveys is a combination of cleanliness, loving care, and businesslike realism.
The kennels, with steel-mesh fencing and cement floors, are thoughtfully designed and managed. For new dogs, arriving here must be much likeyoungsters entering a new boarding school.
Staff members know their boarders by names, personalities, and habits. They love them and are disappointed when a dog flunks out.
The training program is a three-to-six-month process on average, leading up to when the new owners meet their dogs during an on-campus. For people who need one, "an assistance dog is like an extension of themselves," says NEADS director Sheila O'Brien.
Elizabeth Fanning, the high school volunteer who helped during Mica's drill, adds that "I've learned how much these dogs mean to the people they stay with. When you see how it affects the personality of the owners, you know it really changes things. It's a great experience to be here."
Although she calls her organization "Massachusetts' best-kept secret," Ms. O'Brien has become a world spokeswoman for these canine "partners," as NEADS calls their dogs.
"I've just been invited to co-lead a delegation to South Africa," she says, "as part of the President's Citizen's Ambassador Program. They asked me to lead one to China, but that was cancelled. South Africa wishes to extend their guide program for the blind by including hearing dogs for the deaf and service dogs."
NEADS gets about 75 percent of their dogs from pounds and shelters. The rest come from breeders and other sources. New arrivals are examined for health, disposition, and safety.
The program is funded through a grass-roots campaign. "We don't get any state or federal funds," says O'Brien, "but we write for a variety of grants and help from private foundations."
NEADS also has a sponsorship fee of $5,000, which most new owners cannot afford, so the cost is raised from like communities, churches, and clubs. "But we do require that owners pay $300, over a period of time if necessary," says O'Brien. "We feel if they cannot afford $300, they can't afford to feed or maintain a dog."
The cost of training a dog like Mica averages out to about $7,700. She is about to "graduate" and join her full-time owner.
A bundle of disciplined eagerness, she bounds around the apartment - tireless and dependable - waiting impatiently for the next task. That comes when helper Elizabeth sets off an alarm clock. O'Connell lies on the couch in the role of Mica's sleeping owner. Rosie's reveille comes when Mica lands on her, a living alarm clock, to let her know it's time to rise.
But a grimmer skill is also practiced in this session. When Liz sets off a smoke alarm in her hand, Mica dashes to the bedroom, arouses Rosie, and leads her to the front door. Mica gets praise and another treat.
For service dogs, the training is distinctly different. To start with, a different kind of candidate is sought. Instead of the high-energy self-starter typical of hearing dogs - often poodles or terriers or a mix - service dogs tend to be golden retrievers or labrador retrievers. "The sound dogs have to think on their own," says O'Connell. "If there's a fire in the home, they can't wait to be motivated. But service dogs have to be more into the person. "Okay, I'll please you.' "
If a baby cries at 2 a.m., "the hearing dog has to get the deaf mother or father," O'Brien adds, "whereas the service dogs are told what to do."
Yet training service dogs is also an intensive business. The reason for a big plastic shield behind one of the light switches becomes evident when trainer Allyson MacKenna brings two black labs in front of it.
Each jumps up and repeatedly pulls its paw across the plastic, turning on the light in the process. Then trainer Allyson MacKenna sits in a wheelchair and drops wooden blocks on the floor.
One of the labs picks them up, unbidden, and drops them in Ms. MacKenna's lap. "And if someone falls from a wheelchair," O'Brien explains, "it sets off the dog's barking as an alert." Service dogs pull wheelchairs up ramps and open doors for their owners.
What is a typical reason for a dog flunking?
"It could be they're too distractable - not focused on their work," she says, "or it could a reliability reason. They could be too much dog for the person. We usually don't have aggression problems, but sometimes if we feel they'll be aggressive to cats, we'll flunk them."
To ensure early detection of this tendency on a dog candidate's part, cats are all over the place at NEADS.
"A deaf person or a person in a wheelchair cannot make these dogs do anything," says O'Brien. "The dogs have to love the work. If they don't, I always say to the trainer, 'These dogs are telling you something.' "
Flunkees are in great demand. People have to sign up in advance to get one. Apollo, a German shepherd cross, recently flunked because "if there were a toy in the room, he would not answer any sounds," O'Brien explains. But he promptly became a star at the nearby police drug enforcement unit.
Does the full-time owner need to keep giving the dog goodies? O'Brien is asked. "No," she answers, "eventually the dog bonds to the person and does not need a treat - with the exception of 'answering' the telephone. That has to be reinforced with a treat because you're forced to ignore the dog when you pick up the phone."
Despite their well-honed skills, O'Brien says she has found that another function is even more important to their owners. "They have told us that the most important thing in a dog is not doing the job mechanically the best but being a social icebreaker," she says. It gets people's attention off the physical handicap and lets the owners interact more naturally with others. It's a quality hard to train, one that springs from the nature of the assistance dog.