Unleashing skills of dogs to serve human beings

Jordan Kwapich talks with Porsche, a black lab in training to become a service dog.

By JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN

BG Independent News

 

The black lab Porsche kept her eyes on her trainer, despite the dog treats scattered on the floor in front of her – including one sitting on her paw.

Her salivary glands sent drops of slobber onto the floor, but she continued to obey the order to “leave.”

Porsche is in training to become a service dog for Assistance Dogs for Achieving Independence, located under the Ability Center umbrella in Toledo. She and Jordan Kwapich, client service coordinator with Assistance Dogs, presented a program recently for the Bowling Green Kiwanis Club.

Kwapich, a Bowling Green State University graduate, works to match up service dogs with the people they will serve. The program currently has about 150 matches, and places about 20 dogs a year.

“I have been a dog lover all my life,” so the job is a perfect match for her, Kwapich said.

Her job is to screen clients before they get service dogs.

“I get a feel of what their personalities are,” she said. “That’s the biggest thing – matching the personalities together.”

“Our goal is to help people be as independent as they want to be,” Kwapich said.

Most of the dogs trained are Labrador or golden retrievers.

“We love their temperament,” she said. “They are very social and friendly.”

Not all canines are made to be service dogs.

“We look for a dog that’s very confident, work driven, not afraid of things.” They must also have a lot of energy. “They need to keep up with their person’s needs.”

The agency trains dogs to fill the roles of service dogs, special needs dogs, and school therapy dogs. Most start their training as puppies, and are placed with a person when they reach 2 years old.

“They have most of the puppy stuff out of their systems by then,” Kwapich said.

The dogs are trained to perform such tasks as picking up dropped items, pushing or pulling open doors, delivering a telephone to their owner, helping with transfers from chairs or to bed, retrieving items from cabinets, and opening a refrigerator to get items like bottled water. The dogs learn to be problem solvers.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Kwapich said. “Dogs are very intuitive.”

The dogs trained for special needs clients learn skills to assist people with autism or Down’s syndrome.

During training, the dogs live with volunteer foster families, where they are exposed to different settings and people. They learn to be comfortable riding in cars, going to the zoo or baseball games, and learn to not be afraid of people dressed differently, such as wearing scrubs in a hospital.

The program uses positive reinforcement to train the dogs – with rewards being bits of kibble, verbal praises, or manual “clickers” that tell a dog he has done well.

The dogs always wear their working vests when in public.

“They know they are working when they have their equipment on,” Kwapich said.

Not all dogs make it through the training. One dog almost completed his two years, when it became clear that he was afraid of shiny tile floors, she said.

Those “fabulous flunkies” are then available for adoption. “They go on to be fabulous pets,” she said.

Kwapich noted that the “assistance” pet umbrella has become very broad in the past few years. The legal definition is an animal trained to mitigate a person’s disability.

“Service dogs are allowed to go wherever the general public is allowed to go,” she said.

However, if they don’t behave, the law states that they can be asked to leave, Kwapich added.

The assistance dog program has a two-year waiting list. Each trained dog is worth about $20,000, but people receiving them pay based on an annual household income scale. The average person pays between $2,000 and $5,000.

The program is non-profit, so it conducts a lot of fundraising, takes sponsorships and donations. “We get creative coming up with fundraising,” she said.

Kwapich suggested that the public inquires before engaging a service dog.

“The rule is always ask if you want to pet the dog,” she said. Also, make sure to acknowledge the person – not just the dog.

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