BY NANCY GAGNET | MIRROR REPORTER — Some very special four-legged friends are looking for good people to care for them along their journey to becoming service dogs.
The Ability Center of Greater Toledo, which oversees the Assistance Dogs for Achieving Independence program, needs volunteers to help care for the puppies currently in training. The organization supports individuals with disabilities and works to train and place service and therapy dogs with those in need of support so they may lead more independent lives.
Former Maumee City Council member and Monclova Township resident Jenny Barlos serves as the organization’s client services manager. She is also one of the few foster volunteers currently located in the area. Through the years, she has fostered numerous dogs in the program.
“Even though it is hard and emotional because you develop a relationship with the dog you are working with, being a foster volunteer can be a really positive experience,” Barlos said. “You know logically that this is not your dog, but it doesn’t make that ultimate hand-off to the forever person any easier or less emotional. It’s kind of like sending your kid off to college – you know that they will go out there and make the world a better place, but they are not going to be in your immediate realm anymore. You’ve done what you can to have a positive influence on that dog and teach them some things and send them on their way.”
The dogs in the program take part in rigorous training, and volunteers play a key role in the dog’s success, she added.
“Service dogs are trained specifically to help someone with a mobility challenge. These dogs are trained to do actual physical tasks to mitigate the disability,” she said.
There are a number of tasks a service dog can perform, such as picking up items, opening and closing doors or pulling off a jacket sleeve, pant leg, sock or shoe. The dogs can pull bed covers up and down and help with laundry by popping open the washer and dryer door or transferring clothes from one machine to the other. The dogs learn to shut off lights, retrieve a cordless or cell phone and bark on cue to draw attention if help is needed. The dogs also have protected public access rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).
The wait period to receive a therapy or service dog is 18 to 24 months. The Labrador retriever is the breed most often used in the program because they love to work and learn, and they are the breed with the most success in the type of work needed, Barlos said.
“Even five years into the placement, if somebody’s disability progresses, it is easy to add additional training and we will continue to provide services for those who are placed with our dogs,” Barlos said. “We continue to give support for as long as their dog is living and working with them.”
To ensure safety, home evaluations are conducted before any dog is placed with a volunteer. In addition, all the expenses related to dog care are covered through the program.
“It really is the best of both worlds because you not only have a chance to have a dog that is really well-trained in your home, but you also know that you are really truly contributing toward somebody else’s independence,” Barlos said. “So much is taken away from people who have a mobility challenge and these dogs are really a great opportunity to put something back into their life. Having the opportunity to work with the dog and have a dog in your home and love them and let them go on to have a greater purpose for somebody else is really a beautiful experience.”
A number of ongoing volunteer opportunities are available, and volunteers do not have to agree to take a dog home, as help is needed with special events or to care for puppies on-site, Barlos said.
“It really is whatever time people have to give us,” she added. “We try to be as flexible as possible, but really our volunteers can grow into any size role they want to have.”
All volunteers take part in a new handler class, which is offered each week.
Volunteers are currently needed in the following areas:
Puppy raisers: This volunteer work requires ample time and effort for puppies that are 10 weeks old. The puppy raiser helps develop good habits through consistent training and good communication.
Puppy raisers attend weekly classes and outings with the assistance dogs. The volunteers must also transport the dogs to vet appointments, complete progress reports and communicate with the training staff and dog mentor.
Puppy raisers can choose to stay on as the foster while the dog finishes training.
Foster volunteers: These volunteers are vital to the program and its mission. A foster volunteer will housetrain and nurture the service dogs in training from the age of 5-months to 2 years.
The mission of a foster volunteer is to love and socialize their service dog while providing training at home, during outings and in group training classes. The volunteers work closely with the assistance dog’s training team to learn cues, manners and appropriate behavior.
The complete care of the dog is the responsibility of the foster family including grooming, feeding, exercise, safety, health and socialization. Foster volunteers must also attend new handler classes and weekly group training classes with a trainer.
A foster volunteer is never alone in this learning process. The assistance dog’s canine services team provides continual support throughout the training.
Puppy sitters: Volunteers can care for a puppy in training for a short period of time by serving as a puppy sitter if a foster family is going on vacation.
For information about becoming a volunteer, please call The Ability Center of Greater Toledo at (419) 885-5733 or fill out the form on the website at www.abilitycenter.org/volunteer.