TheraPETics Service Dogs of Oklahoma

posted January 15th, 2007 by
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Story by Sherri Goodall

Along with a devoted, specially trained, four-legged helpmate, people who are partnered with a TheraPETic’s canine are given the invaluable gift of INDEPENDENCE.

Under the watchful eye of Lisa Bycroft, Executive Director and Diane Hutchins, Administrative Assistant, magic transpires on East 21st Street at TheraPETics. Adorable balls of fur—golden, black, brindle, apricot, chocolate and many hues in between— are transformed into superbly trained service dogs.

Golden Retrievers and Labradors are excellent service breeds; they love to retrieve and they love to please. The newest breed is the Labradoodle (Standard Poodle/Labrador)—the uber breed of service dog. Labradoodles combine the best of both worlds: non-allergenic coats, retrieving instincts, love of service and superior intelligence.

David Skaggs and his black lab, Martin, greeted us at TheraPETics. Martin demonstrated his talents soon enough. Martin, like many of his TheraPETics peers, functions as the body and legs of Skaggs, who is paralyzed from the waist down. Martin deftly removed Skaggs’ long-sleeved jacket on command. He also will remove Skaggs’ pants. Doodle, a young Labradoodle demonstrated her talent of undoing Skaggs’ Velcro shoes. Buster, Doodle’s brother, was the ace light switch operator. He entertained us with a frenzy of light switching— on, off, on, off, until we were dizzy.

Skaggs says Martin not only gives him the confidence and freedom to pursue his life and work; but also gives his wife the opportunity to pursue her life without worry. Martin retrieves tools for Skaggs, brings the telephone to him and can go to a neighbor for help.

Buster belongs to Diane Hutchins and alerts her when her sugar drops. Dogs cannot be trained to alert a human to seizures or other body changes, like sugar swings. This ability is due to the canine’s uncanny sense of smell. When sugar drops, or a seizure is about to begin, the dogs smell the changes inthe human’s body chemistry. Once the dog is rewarded for this behavior, it will repeat it when appropriate (Pavlov). Buster, also “braces” to help Diane stand.

What we consider simple tasks; dressing and undressing, opening and closing doors and cabinets, retrieving items dropped on the floor, sitting up, standing, turning on lights, answering a telephone, ringing a doorbell, unloading a washer or dryer—are monumental, if not impossible tasks for the physically limited. TheraPETics dogs perform all these tasks and more.

Children face the most difficult challenges with their disabilities… both emotional and physical. Once a service dog comes into their lives, typical social barriers are broken. The dogs become the bridge between “abled” and “disabled.” More than just physical doors are opened.

It takes tremendous trust and confidence for a physically challenged human, who has known only hardship, to turn him or herself over to a dog. This is where the training begins.

Lisa begins with 7-8 week-old puppies. Haikey Creek Kennels donate the Goldens. Labradors come from Wyngmaster and Glen-Mar Kennels. Sommer’s Doodles in OKC supply the Labradoodles.

Before being accepted, the puppies must take the Volhard Puppy Aptitude Test, which measures their retrieval drive and temperament (whether too dominant or submissive). Only those that measure up, make the cut.

From here, volunteers take over. First, the puppies go to a puppy raiser for one year. They come to class (raisers and puppies) once a week where they work with Mary Green, the official trainer. They learn basic obedience behavior, socialization, and patience. Their instincts of pulling and retrieving are honed and rewarded. The puppies learn to associate desired behavior with praise and reward. As important as their “schoolwork” is their socialization in their raiser’s home, where there might be children and other pets.

After a year with the puppy raisers, the dogs graduate to a trainer home. This is where the specific task- training begins. The trainer and dog go to work in the real world, whether it’s to a job, classroom or errands around the city. Once a week they go to class at TheraPETics, where they learn and practice desired behaviors. There are wheelchairs to pull and push, doors to open and close, refrigerators with items to be fetched, washers and dryers to be emptied, directions to be learned, tasks upon tasks to be mastered. Then they go home and practice some more. The dogs visit malls, ride escalators and elevators, visit restaurants, retail stores, museums, grocery stores, health centers, hospitals, doctors—all the service and entertainment establishments necessary to our lives. They travel on public transportation, through airports, on airplanes, in taxis, stay in hotels…just as we do.

Each dog costs about $14,000 to train. TheraPETics places the dogs with their partners at no cost. This is due to the volunteers that give so generously of their time, many of the in-kind services donated by vendors and veterinarians, corporations, and the fund raising efforts of TheraPETics.

At last… THE BIG DAY! GRADUATION. The hours, days, weeks and months of training culminate when the dogs are paired with their humans…the bond is formed. Team Training begins. The specific needs of each disabled person are added to the dog’s repertoire. The human/dog team train together for 100 hours, usually at the person’s home, so that the dogs can train to a specific environment.

It’s a beautiful merger. People gain their freedom and independence and the dogs get to do what they love best.

Each year, TheraPETics has two fundraisers: A K9K Race (a 5.5 mile sponsored race benefiting TheraPETics), and DOGFEST where all canines can strut their stuff. Silly contests abound, including Best Trick, Owner/Dog look-alike, Doggie Cross-Dressing Races, and agility races. Many vendors and rescue groups are on hand displaying their services and products. Of course, the TheraPETics dogs demonstrate their talents.

A special fund, The Dolly Fund, honors Dolly Carter, the famous black lab who dived into dryers. Its purpose is to fund extraordinary veterinary bills for service dogs.

These funding opportunities and much more can be found at www.TheraPETics.org.

One Response to “TheraPETics Service Dogs of Oklahoma”

  1. Destiny says:

    Diane was ver helpful we all miss her very much. I love u nana

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