Man’s best friends learn ways to offer care

Man's best friends learn ways to offer care Members of the Vermillion Lions Club met Buckshot, assistance-dog-in-training, following their meeting at the VFW Club on Thursday, Feb. 17.

Buckshot, or Bucky as he is called by his trainer, brought with him Michael D. Goehring who is the executive director of the Great Plains Assistance Dogs Foundation, Inc. of Jud, ND, and his trainer Barbara Haarman. (Jud is 35 miles south of Jamestown.) Bucky, Mike, and Barbara told the story of assistance dogs and the training they must receive prior to being placed with individuals in need of the dogs' help and provided a demonstration of training techniques and Bucky's skills.

Assistance dogs fall into five different categories and are specifically trained for five different jobs.

"Service dogs are trained to be the arms and legs for an individual with physical mobility impairment. Therapeutic companion dogs are trained to work in a 'therapy' capacity for the elderly, children, disease sufferers, burn victims, etc. Hearing dogs are trained to be the ears for an individual who has a hearing impairment or who is deaf," Goehring said. "Seizure response dogs are trained in a combination of the other four areas."

Buckshot is being trained as a service dog. The Great Plains Assistance Dog Foundation's seizure dog training program is one of only four seizure dog training programs in the country.

The foundation has placed 54 dogs in 19 states and two dogs in Canada since its founding 10 years ago. According to Goehring, all of the dogs must go through a basic training program which includes public access training and obedience training prior to being trained to perform the tasks necessary to being placed with his or her human (who must also be trained to work with the dog).

The dogs must learn to be unobtrusive and gentle, and to leave things alone that would ordinarily bring a response from a dog who is not a working dog.

"More is required of these dogs in public than most kids," said Goehring.

Following his obedience training demonstration, Bucky showed the group that he can turn a light switch on or off and that he can pick up and "give" any object within reason such as trim-line phones, books, newspapers, etc. Goehring explained that the dog is first taught the behavior and then the behavior is given a name that is then used as a command.

Using a laser light, Haarman demonstrated how Bucky is being trained to push a particular button such as those that indicate the number of a building's floors in an elevator. All of the training is based on the principal of operant conditioning. The first step is to identify the desired behavior for the dog, for example when the dog looks at the light switch, a clicker is used to mark the event and a reward is given to the dog.

Then the dog is rewarded if he/she touches the switch and from there the behavior is fine-tuned until the dog clicks the switch on or off according to command. Goehring said "Bacon-flavored Cheese Whiz works wonders for getting the dog to move the switch."

The dogs are brought into the program by varying avenues and they are all very carefully screened prior to training. They must be strong, and healthy, non-aggressive, and they must not be too shy nor can they have skeletal problems. Many of the dogs are golden retrievers and many are Labrador retrievers. They must all "work easily," said Goehring.

The cost of providing a fully trained assistance dog to a physically challenged individual is $12,500. The cost to the recipient of the dog is determined on a sliding scale of the person's ability to pay. The Great Plains Foundation is supported totally by private donations. Some dogs are sponsored by individuals who make donations to the foundation.

All applicants for the assistance dogs must also be screened and trained prior to receiving a dog. A determination must be made that an assistance dog is the appropriate intervention for the individual through consultation with that individual's health care professionals. According to Goehring, other factors that must be considered are family dynamics and compatibility with dogs.

"Training the humans is one of the hardest parts of our job," said Goehring. "Many of our humans refer to their three week training session as boot camp."

Goehring reported that much of the support for the Great Plains Assistance Dog Foundation has come from Lions Clubs. If anyone is interested in a program about the foundation and its dogs they can reach Goehring at Great Plains Assistance Dogs Foundation, P.O. Box 513, Jud, ND 58454, (701) 685-2242.

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