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Mitch Doyle talks about the training that goes into raising a service dog during a visit with Kelly Idso's third grade class at Eastwood Elementary. David Samson/The Forum

Service Dogs for America making a difference

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West Fargo's Eastwood Elementary gym was packed on Oct. 21, with eager third graders anxious to learn more about the roles of 'Ivy' and 'Jet,' Black Lab training dogs, affiliated with Service Dogs for America (Great Plains Assistance Dogs Foundation, Inc.) from Jud, N.D.

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Mitch Doyle, head trainer for the past seven years, and Vicki McMahon, in charge of maintenance, accompanied the two dogs to the school for a presentation focusing on what's involved with training a service dog to assist those living with disabilities.

The students in the third grade classes of Kelly Idso, Jennifer Von Pinnon, Keith Ferguson and Susan Lundgren, had been reading about guide and service dogs in their new reading series and were anxious to learn more. Since Service Dogs for America is a nonprofit organization, the third graders wanted to carry their participation one step further by collecting donations of new and used puppy supplies for a 'doggy shower,' ultimately ending up with a huge tableful of items, including old blankets and towels, dog and puppy collars, doggy treats, and puppy toys, that were also presented the day of the assembly.

The function of Service Dogs for America is to assist physically challenged individuals to gain greater independence by use of a trained, certified assistance dog, without adding excessive financial burden. To accomplish this end, the program relies on tested and trained dogs, mostly Black Labs and Lab crosses. The dogs are initially donated by individuals wishing to contribute to the program. The mother stays with the pup for eight weeks and around that time the training begins and continues until the dog is two years old.

At that time, clients with respective disabilities seeking an animal are brought in for placement with one of the dogs, staying about three weeks. After becoming familiar with their 'dog,' the leash of their animal is handed to them on day three, cutting off all contact from the trainer. "From that point on, everything has to come from the client," Doyle said. "It will be their dog and they will have to provide the food, playing and loving. It really is kind of hard," a reference to letting go of the dog that everyone has become attached to during the course of the training.

The rest of the stay is spent with the client teaching the dog what he needs to do to accommodate their disability, whether it's picking up a cane, walking up steps, responding to a seizure, or any other number of needs. Part of the training process involves a fly swatter and clickers, with the noises triggering specific reactions from the dogs as a big part of the training process.

The third graders were enthused by the presentation, asking a variety of excellent questions pertaining to Ivy and Jet, specifically what is involved in the training process and how it proceeds. One of the students was selected to participate by pretending he was a seizure patient that needed being responded to by one of the dogs, with Jet quickly coming to his rescue.

Speaking on behalf of the third grade teachers, Idso said the most important lesson they felt the students learned was "now when the students go out in public, for example, a restaurant, and see a service dog, they will know what their boundaries and limitations when it comes to interacting with the service dog."

Drawing a parallel, Idso said the whole topic is close to her own heart since she has a brother-in-law with multiple sclerosis who has a service dog named Frisbee, who carries a Frisbee in his mouth at all times. "We know when Frisbee's in his home we can't play with him because he needs to be doing his job," Idso noted. "We can take him outdoors and play but inside he has a job to do which is to serve the client."

There are presently 13 dogs in training at the Jud facility and six dogs in the Jamestown Prison program, a partner in the venture. A total of nine dogs were placed in 2009 alone. Once dogs go out they are expected to serve their new owner for an eight to ten year time frame. At that time, they either remain in their present setting or are placed with a family in a loving home.

Doyle said training the dogs is easy. "It's fun, they don't talk back," she joked. "You have to be happy and it has to be a fun time for the dogs. I always have treats in my pockets, and when they see my hand go in, they sit down quick."

Cost of training each dog is approximately $15,000, which is utilized for housing, food, training, veterinary bills, socializing, and other areas deemed necessary for proper placement.

The cost to the individual receiving help is based on a sliding scale system as to what they can afford. Consequently, nobody is turned away. Remaining costs are offset by the generosity of charitable gifts which are always welcome, with all donations tax deductible.

Doyle emphasized that these dogs can address just about every disability out there, with the exception of the visually impaired, with other specialized training organizations focusing on that. "We are known throughout the country to take on different cases," Doyle added. "We specialize in the difficult ones and also accommodate multiple disorders." In fact, Service Dogs of America at Jud is the only organization in the tri-state area that caters to seizure-related issues.

Doyle said it was a love of animals that attracted her to the present role she plays in helping train these dogs to go out and make life easier for others. "I do it because I love it. To see how many doors we are opening for handicapped people is just heartwarming."

More information is available about Great Plains Service Dogs by visiting their Web site at www.greatplainsdogs.com or by calling the Service Dogs of America at Jud, at 701-685-2242, or email info@greatplainsdogs.com.

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