It’s the first day of classes, and Pippa can barely contain her excitement. She knows she’s supposed to sit still and listen to instructions, and for one so young and full of energy, she does an admirable job.
Fortunately, the promise of a treat makes it easier to pay attention.
Pippa is a 4-month-old Vizsla puppy with a smooth caramel coat, big droopy ears and the kind of soft, sweet eyes that make humans melt. She’s intently engaged with her surroundings and with what she’s being taught in her first class with IDEA Service Dogs of Keller, Tex.
Her owners, 16-year-old Lina Perez and her mom, Katie, live in far north Fort Worth, and have come to IDEA’s founder, Maureen Bennett, to learn how to train Pippa to be a seizure response dog.
It’s an atypical situation. Usually, service dogs are selected and trained and fostered during a lengthy and expensive process, then, finally, assigned to the people they’re meant to serve. But Bennett handles things differently, keeping the future service dogs and their people together from the get-go, so that the relationship starts off strong and the dogs aren’t transferred through a variety of caregivers while they’re growing and working on their skills.
Lina, who has periodic seizures, has a lot riding on Pippa’s success. The plan is to teach Pippa to go get help if Lina has a seizure and to be able to retrieve a packet with medicine and instructions.
“In the future, I’d love to move out of the house and go to college, so having a service dog will be added security and companionship,” she says.
In a private session before the first group class, Pippa only wriggles a little while getting buckled into her service dog in training vest. The new royal blue apparel bears that telltale patch with the slogan, “Please don’t pet me I’m working.”
Lina has a bag of small treats and a clicker to reward good behavior, and when Pippa lies on a small rug at Lina’s feet, it earns her a click and a treat.
A family affair
Right now, Bennett has eight canine “students” divided into two IDEA training classes, plus another dog taking a private class. The classroom for the IDEA dogs – the name stands for Independence Dogs for Everyone With Differing Abilities – is in the garage of Bennett’s home, a remodeled, air-conditioned space where classes take place on Sunday afternoons, September through June.
She keeps her groups small because it gets crowded: Besides four trainers in attendance, each dog is accompanied by its disabled person and another family member who also participates.
“We treat service dog training as a family affair,” says Bennett.
While most traditional programs insist on one person giving the orders, IDEA’s practice is to educate the family on commands and methods. A list of 60 different commands that dogs are expected to learn during a two-year period range from the usual “sit” and “down” to higher-level tasks like turning off lights or finding a misplaced item – an inhaler, for instance.
Training focuses on the use of treats and praise – reinforcing good behavior and ignoring bad behavior. In addition, the program’s mission is to provide service dogs at an affordable cost, thus the novel concept of equipping families with the training knowledge and allowing a disabled pet owner to use a dog he already has, provided the animal has a good temperament for service.
“Our goal is for the dog to be ‘bullet-proof’ in public, first, and then to learn special skills to help the disabled person,” Bennett says.
Like the Perezes, Shari Hanna was intrigued by Bennett’s program and the possibility of training her own service dog. Because of a degenerative disease she developed at age 12, she has had more than 20 surgeries on her hip and retains a pronounced limp. Hanna has had two service dogs in the past and is in the process of training Crockett, an 11-month-old golden retriever, as her third. A special handle on Crockett’s harness provides his owner with some relief and support, and he accompanies her to work in software support at American Airlines every day.
Currently, the pair is part of IDEA’s more advanced class. Although he just started in February, Crockett is a quick study, Hanna says. Even at his young age, he’s learned to not get overly excited by the attention of others and has been exposed to as many different animals as Hanna can find. He also goes to a variety of stores and events with her, and recently accompanied her to a movie.
“I work with him most every day. We do some sort of little practice,” she says.
A diabetic alert dog
A.J. Wilson relies on IDEA for lessons with his Australian Shepherd, Flint, a former show dog. At 26, Wilson has had Type 1 diabetes since he was 9, and he and Bennett are taking private lessons with the goal of making Flint a diabetic alert dog.
Although the sweet-tempered pup didn’t work out in the ring, Bennett says his intelligence and sunny personality make him a good candidate for service. This is Bennett’s first time to train a diabetic alert dog, and she says Wilson must intentionally make his blood sugar get a little out of balance and swab his saliva with a cotton ball. He freezes the sample, and samples of normal readings, in marked vials. The vials are thawed out for training and hidden around Wilson’s apartment.
Flint earns a treat when he alerts them to an out-of-balance sample. Eventually, they’ll train him to associate the scent with Wilson and be able to help.
“When I start to go low, he should determine it almost immediately,” Wilson says. “Once he’s got that figured out, we’ll teach him to open the fridge and get something for it.”
Bennett did not start her career working with dogs, but her own health issues led her toward the new path.
Some 20 years ago, while living in California, the sudden – and painful – onset of rheumatoid arthritis was followed by a diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis, an inflammatory disease that can cause some of the vertebrae in the spine to fuse together. In less than four months, she went from running three or four miles several days a week to not being able to do anything. She had to quit her job and says she spent most of a year stuck in bed.
Eventually, her pursuit of various treatments allowed her to get up and around, and while using her corporate experience to help administer grants to local nonprofits, she came in contact with a traditional service dog organization. Soon, she was raising puppies for the group, serving on the board and learning how to train service dogs.
The traditional model in service dog training is that puppies spend the first 18 months being raised in a foster home, learning basic obedience and socialization. Next, dogs go into kennels to work with trainers who teach them to perform the tasks a disabled person might need. Dogs that learn the skills and are calm and confident graduate to service.
One of Bennett’s foster pups, a golden retriever named Mercy, flunked out of traditional training and became the inspiration behind IDEA Service Dogs.
Mercy was smart and eager to learn when the pair met in 2002, and Bennett had no problem teaching her basic obedience. Soon, Mercy had been sent off for service training, but after a number of months, Bennett learned that the young dog had failed the program. As the story goes, Mercy was afraid of balloons and waving flags and was deemed unsuitable. With puppy raisers getting first dibs on animal adoptions for “failures” they’ve housed, she jumped at the chance to bring Mercy back home.
Bennett learned of another approach to training service dogs with Leashes for Living, a group that focused on assisting those with disabilities and their families in training their own service dogs at a fraction of the cost of traditional programs. The duo enrolled in the two-year program. They passed with flying colors.
Bennett got involved with teaching Leashes For Living classes and kept busy there until her marriage to Jerry Bennett – and a move to Texas in 2006. The two had known each other 30 years earlier when they worked together and reconnected over the phone.
Two years later, she started IDEA Service Dogs in Keller. Jerry has the official title of director of the nonprofit, although he jokes that his unofficial title is “vice president of poop” because he picks up after the dogs following their end-of-class play session in the back yard.
“He’s so supportive,” Bennett says. “I couldn’t do this without him.”
Mercy was special
In 2011, Mercy died, and Bennett still talks often of how special her first service dog was. Now, she has a new canine partner, 4-year-old Sophie, another golden retriever who is well-on her way to becoming “bullet-proof” in public and is eager to learn new skills.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Bennett was teaching her to pick up a dropped credit card, a tricky task on hard floors. Retrieving dropped items is Sophie’s primary task, but she also helps provide stability and mobility assistance to Bennett. The command “brace” means Sophie will be ready for Bennett to lean against her for support.
Although she is already an IDEA graduate, Sophie is a perpetual student. Bennett says she continues attending training classes because her calm, contented demeanor rubs off on the other dogs and she can demonstrate skills.
At the age of 63, Bennett doesn’t allow her mobility challenges to stop her; she is tireless – and passionate – when it comes to IDEA Service Dogs.
“I hope to do it until I can’t,” she says. “It’s what makes life worthwhile.”