September 28, 2016

Service Dogs: A Helping Hand from a Furry Paw

Service Dog Training Program in Utah

Dexter is an 86-pound Great Dane/Lab mix who makes life much easier for Tammy Maldonado and her family. Tammy has two sons who deal with mobility problems, Asperger’s Syndrome and heart problems. It is a lot to deal with for a parent, but that is where Dexter comes in.

Dexter picks things up from the floor-but only for the boy who needs it. He will ignore anyone else, no matter how politely they ask. He also turns on and off lights and helps with balancing.

Asperger’s can make it difficult to deal with social situations. Dexter stays close to Tammy’s son when he is in public, warns him if someone is approaching him from behind and backs him away from people if he is getting too anxious. It has made a huge difference in the child’s life. Where once he stayed home, he now can go out and even goes to the mall with his friends. Tammy says, “It helps him have a normal life.”

Tammy’s older son has heart problems that cause him to have an irregular heartbeat. Dexter can sense when it is off even before he himself can tell. Dexter will go and find Tammy and nudge her until she goes and checks on her son to help him.

Dexter has also made a huge difference in Tammy’s life. She felt uncomfortable leaving her sons, but doesn’t worry as much anymore with Dexter in the house. She says, “He is the best babysitter ever.”

Skye Poitras, service dog trainer

Skye Poitras, service dog trainer

We all need help at one time or another. Sometimes that help can come in the form of specially trained service dogs. Skye Poitras is Utah’s only canine behaviorist and she trains dogs to help their owners. She trained Dexter and many dogs like him.

Skye trains dogs as seizure alert dogs, hearing dogs, mobility aid dogs and psychiatric service dogs to aid people with emotional or social anxiety as well as autism assistance.

Rather than train a dog for a task and then place it with someone in need, Skye trains dog and owners together. For example, if someone needs a seizure alert dog, she will evaluate or help them pick a dog that is suitable. She says, “It takes a needy dog that always wants to be close to their owner.” If the dog has potential, she will train the dog and owner starting with obedience classes and moving up to specific tasks and field trips to teach the dog about behavior in public places.

Eight years ago Skye worked in advertising as a media buyer while she volunteered at the Berkeley Animal Shelter. She recalled an experience with a pit bull named India that she tried to place. She really wanted to see the dog in a happy home, but one morning she went in and the dog had been euthanized because its time at the shelter was up. She said after that experience, “Advertising deadlines became meaningless.”

She left her job because she wanted to make a difference in the lives of dogs and see to it they would not have to end up in a shelter because of a fixable problem. She started taking classes across the country in the form of conferences and seminars, as well as reading and studying everything she could find. In 2004 she was ready for business. She started teaching basic obedience and puppy classes, and after some more education, she started helping people with dogs that had fears, phobias and aggression. The next step was to learn how to train dogs to help with specific problems.

When she trains a service dog it is either with a dog the owner already has or she helps them pick a dog. She gets funding from Best Friends Animal Society and Canines with Careers to help place shelter dogs. She assesses the shelter dogs and finds dogs suitable to the task at hand.

The saying goes that the dog is man’s best friend. In the case of service dogs that is a reality. One boy who suffers from post traumatic stress disorder spent 70 percent of his time, on and off, in the hospital until a few months ago when a Portuguese water dog became part of his life. His family searched the country for an organization that would help them get a service dog for their son. He didn’t qualify because he was too young and not a veteran. Skye was willing to help them and trained the boy and his dog. Now when the boy starts to suffer a flashback that would normally incapacitate him, the dog licks his face and brings him back to the present. He is now able to go to school and hasn’t been to the hospital since. His mom says of the dog and Skye, “They are angels.”

Tommy helps Skye in her classes. He is her dog and is a mobility dog-in-training. He is such a calm, easy-going dog that she uses him in class for the other dogs to mimic. Watching Tommy work you can see that not only do these dogs make a difference in people’s lives, but they also love what they do.