'Kiss The Puppies' To Support Service Dogs
Anyone who puts a "pooch smooch" under the category of romantic interactions will want to make note of the upcoming Exceptional Partner Service Dogs "Kiss The Puppies" event this coming Sunday, May 1.
Founded by dog trainer Abby Hill of Exceptional Pets in Newtown, Exceptional Partner trains and provides psychiatric service dogs to those in need.
Ms Hill has been a certified dog trainer for 20 years, and owns and operates The Exceptional Pet Dog Training facility on Simm Lane.
"Last year," said Ms Hill, "three different people came to me, asking to have their own dog trained to be a psychiatric service dog."
While none of those dogs happened to be appropriate for the specialized skills required of this kind of service dog, Ms Hill began to see a that a need existed.
"I reached out to Assistant Dogs International, and they encouraged me to start my own service dog program. That was about nine months ago, and they have been a phenomenal support," she said.
Assistant Dogs International put Ms Hill in touch with an experienced service dog breeder in West Virginia, and on March 17, five 8-week-old Labrador puppies arrived at her home. The puppies - Harry, Blue, Jake, Taco, and Bella - will be fostered by area adults. The puppies are bred to have a very mellow temperament compared to the typical pet Labrador, said Ms Hill, with a tolerance level that is high.
Reed Intermediate School Librarian Pia Ledina is fostering Harry, and Sandy Hook Elementary School Reading Specialist Laura Feinstein is fostering the only female puppy, and the only yellow Lab amongst four black Labs, Bella. Janet Sweirbut will foster Blue; Jake will be in the care of Michelle McAloon; and Kristen Alesevich and Ms Hill will share raising the fifth puppy, Taco.
As the puppies may be accompanying their foster "parents" in school and work situations, not all are currently in the foster homes.
"We're setting the puppies up for success, and that's based on each pup's maturity - and housebreaking," said Ms Hill.
Even at such a young age, Ms Hill said the puppies' training has begun. When they are out in public, they wear little jackets indicating that they are working and not there for social interaction.
This is the difference between psychiatric service dogs and therapy, or comfort, dogs, Ms Hill stressed.
"A comfort dog is there to make everyone around feel comfortable and happy. A service dog is focused solely on supporting its handler. They are actually opposite jobs," she explained.
As the puppies get older, they will be rotated between the handlers, to give the young dogs different experiences.
At 15 months of age, the puppies will be matched with a local person in need of a psychiatric service dog. By then, Exceptional Partner will know what task or tasks the person needs the dog to perform. The next six months will be spent training each puppy to its specific tasks.
Psychiatric service dogs can be trained to assist people with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, those with self-harming issues, and any other psychiatric issue that prevents a person from living a full life.
For example, said Ms Hill, a dog trained to assist someone with PTSD can wake the person from nightmares; deliver medications and water; turn lights on and off; and assist in crowd situations and with panic attack situations.
These dogs can be trained to help a person suffering from anxiety through inserting itself into crowd conditions when it senses its handler feeling stress, she said. Dogs trained for handling depression will wake their handlers when needed, can be trained to call 911, and deliver medications.
"[Psychiatric service dogs] have a high tolerance for pain or abuse from a handler who is a self-hurter. They will try to insert themselves between the handler and the harm, and they won't back down," Ms Hill said. "It's not that the handler is trying to abuse the dog, but the dog will try to interfere and can tolerate that abuse. It's amazing what these dogs can do," she said.
In just these few short weeks since their arrival in Newtown, Ms Hill said she has already heard from Ms Ledina and Ms Feinstein of how students are reacting positively to Harry and Bella. "[The puppies] are already having a great impact," said Ms Hill.
Amazing Puppies, Special Experiences
"I have raised pups with a purpose before, two for Guiding Eyes for the Blind," said Ms Feinstein. Bella has been in her care since April 10. "One of the women who worked for Guiding Eyes then, is now a parent here in Newtown, and a neighbor. She knew Abby [Hill} and messaged me [about Exceptional Partner Service Dogs], and asked if I'd be interested in raising a puppy. When I heard about the opportunity, it just seemed perfect for me. Raising a puppy with a purpose, combined with my teaching - what could be more rewarding?" she asked.
Bella has accompanied Ms Feinstein to the classroom every day since April 18, a point that was crucial to her being able to foster the puppy.
"I could only do it if I could bring the dog into school," she said. As a reading teacher she has flexibility in her schedule that allows her time to take breaks with Bella.
"The students adore her. Although it is hard to resist her puppy cuteness, the kids already have a clear understanding of the role of a service dog. When Bella is wearing her jacket, it is all business. The students cannot pet her," Ms Feinstein explained.
The students and the teacher are amazed at what the young puppy already knows. "She knows sit, down, and to stay in her place. She sits quietly in her place by my table when I teach reading, or rests comfortably in her crate when she needs a nap. I'm looking forward to what lies ahead for Bella and the important work she will be doing," she said. She is excited, as well, for the new program that will help break the stigma surrounding mental illness.
"[Mental illness] is difficult to talk about. This is something our community needs," Ms Feinstein said.
Pia Ledina is excited to be a part of this experience. A longtime friend of Ms Hill's, she helped develop the materials presented to Superintendent Joseph V. Erardi, Jr, about the program and getting the dogs into schools.
"I helped make sure it could fly. It was clear to me there is a specific need for something like this," she said.
The brief month that Harry has been with the Ledina family "has been life changing for me, and I don't even need him," said Ms Ledina. "It's fantastic to see such a smart animal do what people need him to do, even at this young age."
Harry has accompanied her to Reed Intermediate School just a couple of times, so far. "He came for a whole day and it was amazing to watch his manners and his ability to listen to directions. The kids already understand he is different from the therapy dogs that visit our school, and are respectful of him," she said.
"The kids want to learn, and what Harry is doing is opening up conversation, as we discuss what his jobs might be," Ms Ledina said. As the media specialist, she comes to this process with a strong connection to the students, so she is comfortable with the bigger conversations that come up around the different needs people can have.
"I think it's going to be a real starter on a subject that is hard to approach. There is a real stigma around mental illness, but we show the kids it's just a need. The idea that Harry might one day be able to tell when someone is having a seizure and get help is amazing to them. There is curiosity, excitement, and joy around him - he's a puppy, after all," Ms Ledina said.
It is not all work for Harry. Every couple of hours his jacket comes off and Ms Ledina plays with him. Students will earn the special reward of reading with Harry or playing with him when he is out of his jacket, she said.
"This puppy is special. It's a special experience," Ms Ledina said.
A Teen Mentor Program
What is nearly as exciting as having the first Exceptional Partner Service Dogs in training, Ms Hill said, is the extension of the program she has planned.
"The next litter of puppies we get, in early 2017, will go to teen puppy raisers. Newtown teens, who have full family support, will train the next puppies," she said.
The high school-aged teenagers will be required to commit to four hours of community service each month, including attending fundraisers, festivals, and community events, and attend weekly training sessions. Each teen trainer will also take the Dignity Revolution Pledge to "stand up for the worth, value and dignity of every person," according to the website.
In addition, these teen trainers will learn how to talk to their peers about mental health and mental illness, hopefully breaking the stigma that surrounds mental health issues.
Ms Hill will be working with the schools and a family therapist to determine which student applicants are selected to become teen puppy trainers. An application will be posted online at newtownservicedogs.org in late 2016, said Ms Hill, but in the meantime, interested high school students can e-mail her for more information at email@example.com.
Ms Hill will continue her own training in June, when she attends seminars about training dogs for seizure alerts and diabetic alerts.
Exceptional Partner Service Dogs will provide trained dogs free of charge. As a nonprofit, it relies on donations for funding.
The Kiss The Puppies event, Sunday, May 1, from noon to 4 pm, includes a kids' agility course, crafts, games, face painting, prizes - and a photo with one of the five puppies.
A Kids Activity Pass can be purchased in advance at newtownservicedogs.org/events for $8. Advance tickets for adults are $5; a family pass (two adults, three children) is $22. On the day of the event, adult tickets are $8; kids, $10; and family pass is $25. All proceeds benefit Exceptional Partner Service Dogs, and ticket costs are tax deductible.
Kiss The Puppies takes place at 3 Simm Lane, off Main Street South (Entry B).