Thursday, March 20, 2008

Service dogs also help patients with seizures

At 3 and 4 months of age, it’s hard for these puppies not to wrestle around and act like, well puppies. But these particular puppies have big responsibilities ahead of them.

Certified as a field trainer for the Hearing and Service Dogs of Minnesota, Linda Livingston Wiedewitsch is helping train several puppies and their foster families.

“We are in training, too,” said Jenny Berube of Pelican Rapids. She has been working with Vern, a 4-month-old yellow lab, since Dec. 28. “He came with a manual,” she said of the things he needs to be taught and how to do that training.

Hearing and Service Dogs, not to be confused with Leader Dogs for the Blind, are dogs being groomed to assist those in wheelchairs, who are hearing impaired, have autism or have seizures.
Wednesday evening, the group of five dogs, plus one Leader Dog in training, made a trip over to the Detroit Lakes Fire Department to get the pups “accustomed to firemen in full gear,” Wiedewitsch said.

After being placed with a person in need, if there is a fire, “that person is going to be stressed already, and don’t need dogs stressed too,” she said.

Dogs were encouraged to sniff the firemen’s suits lying on the floor of the fire hall. With the help of firemen Dave Baer and Jim Sinclair, the dogs were then able to interact with the men suited up and equipped with their breathing masks.

Wiedewitsch said this portion of the training in not just about getting the dogs accustomed to firefighters, but more so, “desensitizing” them to situations that could arise so they can concentrate on helping their owner.

While with the foster families, the puppies are exposed to sights sound and smell they need for training. She said they have gone to the grocery store, Wal-Mart, schools, hair salons, on airplanes, mass transit, anywhere a future owner may need to go in everyday life.

Once the puppies are taught the basic socializing skills, they are given aptitude tests to determine what they excel at and are then trained in more specific areas.

For instance, dogs to be placed with hearing impaired clients learn to distinguish certain sounds like doorbells, smoke alarms, a baby crying and a telephone ringing.

Dogs helping with those who have seizures learn to stimulate the person by licking them, bringing a bottle of pills, getting the phone or getting help in some other form.

For those confined to a wheelchair, dogs are trained to push the button to open automatic doors, place packages on counters and reach other items a confined person wouldn’t be able to reach.
Training the puppies takes anywhere from 13 to 14 months for the basics, and 2 to 5 months more for the more specific training.

Puppy raisers, or the foster families, are the trainers like Berube, working with the puppies on their beginning skills.

Berube said this is her first time training a service dog and not knowing what to expect, there’s been more involved than she thought.

“I always saw Linda (Wiedewitsch) in the courthouse with her dog. I was always interested,” she said.

Wiedewitsch has been working with Leader Dogs for years, and she said training the service dogs is a natural fit for her, and something she’s enjoying.

“It’s an extension of what I’ve been doing.”

She worked with a dog, Rudy, last summer that was then paired with Lake Park resident JoAnn Schermerhorn, who has epilepsy.

Berube said after she saw a flyer recruiting foster families, she decided to sign up.

For Margaret Grondahl of Staples, the decision to foster Maya, a 5-month-old yellow lab, was easier. She had already gone through training with her dog, Biscuit, who is trained as an occupational therapy dog, who Grondahl uses during her work as an occupational therapist.

Grondahl received Maya the first weekend in November. It’s usually not determined until later in the training process what service the dogs will be used for, but Grondahl said she already knows Maya will be used as a breeding dog. Knowing her good disposition and ability to learn, after the pup turns 2 years old, she will be bred to produce future service dogs.

Another puppy raiser who had an easier decision to train is Luanne Thorsvig, Detroit Lakes. Not that giving Ripley back at the end of training will be easy.

Thorsvig was working as a trainer at Lucky Dog Boarding and Training Center, and when Ripley came through the door, Thorsvig said she had to have the golden retriever. This is her first time training a service dog.

“I used to work for home health, and I like to give back (to the community) and thought this would be a good way,” she said.

She started working with Ripley, 10 months, in September and says she “had no clue when I started” what the training would entail. But, “it’s been fun.”

Another newcomer to the puppy raising world is Janie Mullikin, Pelican Rapids. She has been working with 3-month-old yellow lab Guido for only a week.

She said she decided to become a foster family because “my cousin is blind and I was always intrigued by that,” she said of the use of service dogs.

Although she didn’t know exactly what to expect when it came time to start training, she said it’s been better than she thought.

The hard part is when the training is over and she has to give Guido back.
“I try and focus on the fact that he’s helping someone out.”


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