Does your dog help you pick things up around the house? Can you take him to a restaurant and expect him to sit under the table quietly while you eat your meal? If you asked him to open the refrigerator and bring something to you, how likely would that happen?
There are some special trainers in New Mexico who teach dogs to do these things. They work with Assistance Dogs of the West (ADW); a Santa Fe based nonprofit organization dedicated to training service dogs for people with physical disabilities who want to increase their self-reliance. In 1995, founder Jill Felice, returned from her studies with the Assistance Dog Institute in California, and started this unique organization. Though there are nearly sixty service dog training organizations in the country, few incorporate an educational program of any type and rely on professional trainers alone to work with the dogs. This is the only program that teaches students in 6th through 12th grades, juveniles in detention, and the developmentally disabled to support the training process.
This unique educational and vocational approach ensures that the dogs aren’t the only ones who learn. The program is offered as an elective at Desert Academy and La Mariposa Montessori schools in Santa Fe. During the school year, thirty to forty-five middle and high school students participate in the program. With the guidance of ADW staff, these students help teach the dogs necessary skills and commands before the dogs are placed with their new owners.
ADW dogs are taught to respond to ninety different commands that instruct them to perform tasks such as opening doors, tugging off clothing, retrieving dropped items and pulling manual wheelchairs. Ninth grader, Ariel Friedlich, has been taking the class for three years, “I love the dog training program because I have to be the leader or else the dog will run all over me. So, I’ve learned to solve problems, take control and speak up for myself –with dogs and others. Handing over the leash at graduation is hard but it’s good.”
Most service dog organizations focus on providing animals to adults who have challenges in mobility caused by disease (cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, and muscular dystrophy), stroke or traumatic accidents. At ADW, there’s no age limit for the clients who receive the dogs. About 25% of the animals have gone to clients fifteen and younger; a three-year-old little girl will receive a dog this year!
“Being trained by kids, our dogs learn to respond to a less authoritative voice,” says founder Jill Felice. “They are taught softly so they work more softly. This allows us to place the dogs with all ages and enables them to be successful with all kinds of clients. It is actually a benefit we didn’t anticipate.”
For more information visit: www.assistancedogsofthewest.org