Today, more than ever, man’s best friend has become an integral part of our families, jobs and health. Take a look at some of the ways in which we put dogs to work, such as policing, therapy and service.
Ever since the first wolf came in from the cold to a human’s fire, people and dogs have shared a special relationship. This long association has made dogs uniquely attendant to human behavior, and has made it possible to train them to be important partners in our lives. Selective breeding has created dozens of dog types especially suited for performing unique tasks and fulfilling specialized roles in our society.
One group of dogs we’ve probably all seen demonstrating their special skills is the canine units (K-9) of local law enforcement agencies. Both the Rockford Police and the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Office have such units, and they often “show their stuff” at public events such as neighborhood watch picnics or county fairs.
The Winnebago County Canine Unit is assigned to the Uniform Services Division and currently consists of five handlers and their dogs.
Each team attends a 10-week training academy at the Illinois State Police Canine Training Center in Springfield, Ill., to become certified. They must re-qualify in each area of training annually, and train at least 16 hours per month to maintain their efficiency, but in reality the training never stops.
The patrol canines are considered dual-purpose dogs and are trained in narcotics detection, tracking, searches and apprehension work. The Sheriff’s unit averages around 75 deployments per month. Since each dog lives with its handler, the job is a 24/7 commitment.
“Most people don’t realize the amount of time and commitment required to do this work,” says Sgt. Nick Cunningham. “In our department, everybody works a 12-hour shift. But when a patrolman comes home after his shift, he’s done for the day. These K-9 handlers must get up two hours before their shift to feed the dog and let his stomach settle. When they get home, they must wait two hours after their shift to settle his stomach before feeding him again. And these dogs have so much energy, you have to do something with them every day, no days off.”
Deputy Steve Martellaro has been on the Sheriff’s force for more than four years, the last year-and-a-half as part of the K-9 unit. His “partner” is a three-year old Belgian Malinois named Bullet, a bundle of canine energy eager to work and please his handler.
“Before I went through training with Bullet, I observed other officers with their dogs,” says Martellaro. “I was also trained in ‘decoy,’ where I wore the bite suit or the bite sleeve, while other dogs attacked me. I had to learn how to take bites and prevent injuries to the dog.”
According to Martellaro, the most difficult part of working with a K-9 unit is tracking.
“It’s all about reading your dog, understanding what he’s showing you,” he says. “We give the command to track, then look for unconditional changes in his behavior. When he’s on track, his ears are up, tail straight and not wagging, his mouth closed. When he loses the track, his head comes up, his tail curls, and he starts looking around.”
When tracking, Martellaro has Bullet on a 30-foot lead, always within the officer’s control. He’s often called upon to track armed suspects who are fleeing arrest. So far this year nationwide, seven K-9 dogs have been killed while pursuing armed assailants, none of them in Winnebago County.
“We had one guy try to punch out the dog that was chasing him, but the dog bit his fist in midair,” says Cunningham. “Most of the time, they give up when they hear the dog coming. We also occasionally find lost children or elderly people who have wandered off.”
Although several breeds have been used for K-9 work, such as German Shepherds and Pit Bulls, Belgian Malinois are particularly well-suited for this job.
“They have a high energy level and great commitment to the work,” says Cunningham. “They’re also well-rounded, since they can both track and fight, and they handle the stress well. They just won’t give up. We say this work is 80 percent dog and 20 percent handler.”
A therapy dog is trained to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, nursing homes, schools and hospices. Its primary job is to allow strangers of all ages to make physical contact with it. Patience, confidence and gentleness are important characteristics of good therapy dogs.
All three Rockford hospitals have therapy dog programs in place. The program at OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center is called Paws for Healing. Formed in 2008, it has grown to a group of more than 45 dogs and their handlers, many of whom have volunteered for five years or more.
Dog qualifications for the program include up-to-date vaccinations, obedience proficiency and ability to handle stress without anxiety. Handlers must be at least 18 years old, have friendly dispositions and good communication skills, and must be able to work two 2-hour shifts per month. Applications and procedures are available at osfsaintanthony.org.
For the past 15 years, Ida Public Library in Belvidere has hosted a Latino outreach reading program for children between ages 3 and 7. The kids meet every Friday evening from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Twice a year for the past three years, OSF’s therapy dogs have visited the reading program, and the kids, one at a time, have read to the dogs. This event is called Reading is a DOGgone Good Time.
“It’s one of our best-attended programs of the whole year,” says Maria Lopez, program coordinator at Ida Library. “People ask me all the time, ‘When are the dogs coming back!’”
A service dog is specifically trained to help persons with disabilities, such as hearing loss, diabetes, mobility, seizures or mental illness, by performing tasks or responding to emergencies. Guide dogs are service dogs specially trained to assist the blind. Although almost any breed or breed mix may be capable of becoming a trained service dog, some have better stamina and temperament suited for such a life role. In the U.S., Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds are the most common breeds trained for such service.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and 2010 stipulates that organizations and businesses which serve the public must allow disabled persons to bring their service dogs into all areas where customers are allowed, even if pets are not. Service dogs are not pets, but are an important partner in the lives of the disabled, and their access to public spaces gives their owners the freedom to go about normal activities.
Pat Muller, owner and president of Quansa Kennels, Inc. in South Beloit, Ill., specializes in teaching dogs –and their owners – how to form healthy and enjoyable relationships. Her business motto: “Any dog – any age – any goal – any problem,” speaks volumes about her philosophy and technique in accomplishing such goals. One of her specialties is training service dogs.
“I believe dogs were put on this earth to teach us how to have relationships and how to raise our kids,” says Muller. “Dogs are born already trained in the basics, like how to sit, stand and walk. The rest is learning how to communicate with them. It doesn’t cost any more to feed a dog that listens to you than a dog that blows you off.”
Muller has about two dozen dogs at her facility at any one time, all with different needs, abilities and levels of training. Often more than one dog is present during sessions so that behavior around other animals can be observed, and if need be, corrected.
“Any person wishing to communicate with their dog needs to be fair, firm and consistent,” says Muller. “It only takes three successful repetitions for most dogs to learn what you mean, but it usually takes a month to set the behavior as a habit.”
Muller emphasizes that the relationship between dog and handler must include loyalty, trust and respect for each other. She insists that the owner of a service dog be intimately involved in the learning process as she teaches people to become leaders, not tyrants, for their dogs.
“We teach dogs to work at the level of the owner,” says Muller. “The dog has to work for the youngest, oldest, weakest, most limited member of the family, not just the most powerful.
“I enjoy watching obedience trials at dog shows, but obedience training wasn’t invented for people to go to dog shows. It was invented so working dogs could be animals of service, to do anything we want them to do that makes our lives better. Most dog owners don’t need the precision of a dog show; they need the attitude of service. A service dog has to care more about you than it does about itself, or it won’t care if you have a problem.”
While working, most service dogs wear a vest or collar that identifies them as such, which includes a warning to the public not to pet the animal. This is not meant to protect people from aggressive behavior by the dog, although that may sometimes be the case. It’s meant to keep the animal focused on his job, which is to attend to the owner’s needs.
“When you have a service dog on which you depend for support, it’s not good if someone else could call that dog away,” says Muller. “That dog is supposed to pay attention to you. It’s your live-in employee, your caretaker, not your pet. When a service dog has on his service vest, its mind must be on the handler at all times.”
For that reason, Muller doesn’t recommend taking service dogs to dog parks, since the handler can’t control the interactions with other dogs.
“But I work my dogs outside of dog parks, so they get used to working in spite of all that activity nearby,” she says. “Spending time together with other dogs can’t be their top priority. They need to be paying attention to you.”
Monsignor Eric Barr is a retired Catholic priest and a favorite client of Pat Muller. For the past six months, she’s been training Barr’s two-year-old chocolate Lab, named Troubles, to become a mobility service dog for him. Barr suffers from a neurological disease similar to MS, called complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), which originated from a fall on the ice back in 1998. It’s incurable and often progressive.
“It impacts the limbic system and causes you to grow more pain receptors,” explains Barr. “As a result, any pain anywhere in my body is magnified. It affects mostly my hands, my shoulder and my walking. It also causes balance problems.”
Troubles has been trained to help steady Barr, to be a brace for him to get up and move, to find and retrieve things for him, and to calm him down if he becomes agitated. But the training wasn’t easy, mostly because Troubles started out as a pet.
“It’s difficult to have lived with a dog as a truly out-of-control pet, and then expect him to be calm and well-behaved during training,” says Muller. “Eric and Troubles had a hard time with that.”
Troubles lived at the Quansa kennel during his training, but Barr was involved in every step of the process.
“As Pat emphasizes, training a service dog is a team effort,” says Barr. “It’s a relationship, and both you and the dog have to be in sync. Usually they start training service dogs as puppies, but Troubles was one-and-a-half years old and got a late start. As Pat will tell you, I had taught him all the bad things and he was just a fun-loving puppy. He had to ‘un-learn’ all of that and become a much better citizen.”
After four months at the kennel, Troubles came home for his first weekend visit, but it turned out to be quite the disaster, Barr recalls.
“He ran around, took things from me,” says Barr. “I was beside myself. I thought the training hadn’t done any good. But Pat said, ‘He’s fine. You’re the one that’s screwing up. You let him come back and do whatever he wanted.’ I let him get away with things.”
“Eric slipped back into the ‘buddy’ mode, instead of assuming the position of leader,” says Muller. “It was a big struggle for him to change his lifestyle. The only way a dog can ask a question is to test you. If you don’t say anything, the dog will keep doing the behavior, while getting more and more intense.”
“During the second visit, Troubles was perfect,” says Barr, “because I expected different things from him.”
Troubles “graduated” from service dog training in October, but the work continues for both Barr and his companion. While Troubles is transitioning to be home full time, they both visit the kennel frequently to keep focused and learn new things.
“When Troubles has his service vest on, we don’t do puppy stuff,” says Barr. “You can see the difference in how he stands, how he carries himself. He knows he’s working, and that it’s important. He looks noble, even dignified. He knows he has my expectations to live up to, and he wants to do that. Work is his motivation, his reward.”
Since Barr also has type 2 diabetes, Troubles has been trained to smell his hand and alert him when his blood sugar is too high. He can also sense when Barr is experiencing a lot of pain or anxiety, and then move to relieve it by snuggling up to Barr.
“This guy is better than any medicine,” says Barr, “simply because he’s now so relaxed, so aware of me. He can sense what’s going on, and what I need to put myself together and function again.”
Troubles is also “cross-trained” to be a therapy dog, so he can accompany the priest when he visits people in hospitals and nursing homes. This means that sometimes people are allowed to pet him; in fact, his service vest has a tag which says, “Please ask to pet me.”
“If you train a service dog so that their default mode is ‘no petting from strangers’ and make that pretty solid, then you can break the rules occasionally,” says Muller.
“This guy is like my partner in my ministry,” says Barr, as he scratches Troubles behind his ears. “My CRPS disability is pretty much invisible to the public, but this dog allows people to get used to the idea that I can’t do everything like I used to. It makes me humble, and better able to minister to others.
“And, having a service dog has made me grow as a person. It gets me outside myself, and makes me very conscious, not only of the animal, but also of other people and their needs, their own personal struggles. It makes it easier to talk to people about things like that – an excellent thing for a priest!
“Troubles is not a pet, he’s a teammate. He makes my life more full and complete. And I’d like to think I do the same for him.”