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For 25 years, Wilmington nonprofit Canines for Service has helped train, place service dogs
Star-News - 2/25/2021
Feb. 25—As it turns out, humans aren't the only ones who've been experiencing quarantine lately.
In January, over at the headquarters for Canines for Service, the nonprofit Wilmington group that trains dogs and places them with disabled veterans, there was a big, friendly boy named Archer who barked and sniffed at the outstretched hands of a couple of masked visitors.
Archer, a shaggy Great Pyrenees with a striking coat flecked with grays, blacks and browns, was a new arrival at Canines for Service (CFS), and as such was in his own cage, quarantined a room over (a precaution against kennel cough and other such ailments) from a half-dozen dogs in training who were also barking excitedly.
Bethany Leighton, Canines for Service executive director, said that initial projections had Archer pegged for a mobility dog — helping people walk, or get in and out of chairs or bed — because he's so big and strong.
Once his quarantine is over, Archer will join the other dogs at Canines for Service in learning skills that will allow them to assist military veterans with mobility issues and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The main mission of CFS is to match service dogs with veterans free of charge, and it's something the group has been doing for a quarter-century.
"People say, 'I can't afford a service dog,'" said Jennifer Wilson-Mathis, director of development and community relations at CFS. "That's not a hindrance."
Canines for Service celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. With a relatively new leadership team in place — Leighton (previously with StepUp Wilmington, which helps people find full-time work) and Wilson-Mathis have both been in their jobs for less than a year — CFS is poised to hone, rebrand and perhaps even expand its mission in the coming months.
One building over from where Archer and his fellow future service dogs were making a cacophonous din from their cages — don't worry, they are let out multiple times per day to play, train and for walks — the vibe could not have been more different.
In a large, open room filled with various kinds of equipment and large signs — "command sequence" and "The 3 D's" were two of the most prominent — three staff trainers were at work with two interns training three dogs. (If we're being honest, the interns are being trained as well.) If there was something of a busy-quiet office feel to the large room, that's because "the dogs are working," Leighton said.
It's intense and focused. For the dogs "this is hard work," Wilson-Mathis said, adding that it "exhausts" them, so they can only do it for a handful of hours per day. They dogs can put clothes into, and take them out of, front-loading washers and dryers. They can turn off and on lights, and there are refrigerators equipped with ropes so the dogs can open them.
A row of airline seats allows for dogs that might be traveling with clients to get familiar with getting on and off planes. A restaurant-style booth — bonus points for the table recycled from a Wendy's restaurant, with its pattern of old-timey advertisements — lets the dogs practice appropriate behavior in a restaurant setting.
Dogs are taken on regular outings to the store or to restaurants to get them acclimated, essentially training simulations for what they will be doing in the future.
By law, service dogs are allowed to go with their owners anywhere their owners are allowed to be, and CFS sometimes fields calls from vets who say they and their dogs have been denied entry to one business or another. Such a situation recently happened at a Whiteville restaurant, Wilson-Mathis said, and part of the charge of Canines for Service is to educate people on the law when needed as a way of supporting and advocating for their clients, who the agency continues to follow up with for three years once a dog is placed.
Back in the training room, one intern was working with a dog on a "cover" command, where the dog will literally have its owner's back when he or she is at an ATM or in any potentially vulnerable situation that can be triggering for someone with PTSD.
Most of the veterans CFC places dogs with do have PTSD, said Julie Angle, who's been a trainer with the group for six months but has two decades of experience training dogs. Previously, she was with the group Guiding Eyes for the Blind.
"I love working with people and I love working with dogs," Angle said. "I've seen what a difference these dogs make in people's lives. They give them part of their life back."
Helping people is the end result, but getting there is a process. When evaluating a dog for service training, a number of factors come into play.
Mobility dogs tend to be bigger and sturdier, more comfortable being very close to people, as well as good retrievers.
In general, Angle said, "You want them to be able to be calm. You want them to be happy" to help people. CFS likes to start them as puppies, but they can take dogs as old as one year.
Before CFS decides to take on a dog othey give it a temperament test, but that's "a small window to make (a) snap decision," Wilson-Mathis said.
In training, they work on the dog's ability to focus and not be distracted by things like food, but "some dogs are just like, 'Squirrel!' And they're gone," Leighton said. "Some dogs are meant to just play in the back yard, and that's OK."
When a dog is released out of the program it's called a "career change," Wilson-Mathis said. "That's the gamble of rescue."
Even so, she said, the gamble is worth it because at worst it gets the dogs out of shelters — some of which might eventually euthanize them — and into a better long-term situation.
Sometimes, they see such potential in a dog that they pass them on to other organizations. One dog named Mara might've been too excitable to be a service dog but was clearly super-intelligent. Mara is now with the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office and last year became a "K9 deputy."
CFS has seven full-time employees, including three administrative workers and four trainers, as well as one part-time kennel worker. They currently have 19 dogs "in training," including two who are living at home with volunteers. The dogs rotate in and out of such situations because "it's beneficial for dogs to have different experiences," Wilson-Mathis said.
Canines for Service also runs a program at the Marine Corps Installations East — Regional Brig in Camp Lejuene near Jacksonville, one of only two dog training programs in the country to operate in a military prison.
It's a big part of what they do, Wilson-Mathis said, and since 2018, CFS has been there working with inmates at least two days a week.
"It's a rewarding thing to be able to work with inmates," Leighton said. "It gives them something productive to do" while they're imprisoned, and an accomplishment to point to when they get out. It also gives them an incentive to behave, since only inmates without recent infractions can participate in the program, which involves them both living and working with their dogs.
Inmates who work with dogs have been convicted of everything from drunk driving to murder, but "we don't ask them why they're there," Leighton said, instead focusing on teaching the inmates to train the dogs.
CFS also has its Canines for Therapy and Canines for Literacy programs. Therapy dogs go into hospitals or even post-disaster zones, like hurricanes, to provide comfort and a calming presence for people facing health issues or recovering from the stress of suffering damage or loss due to a big storm.
Literacy dogs go into schools or programs that help children struggling to read and help get them relaxed and into a state where they can learn more easily. Dogs don't judge, and even better, they don't correct you.
Canines for Service used to provide service dogs to all people with disabilities. But with so many nonprofits training dogs now, in recent years CFS has narrowed its focus to helping veterans, in part because of its proximity to two large military bases, both Camp Lejeune and the country's largest base, Fort Bragg in Fayetteville.
Leighton grew up in a military family, with a stepfather in the U.S. Air Force and a brother who's also a pilot.
"I witnessed first hand the challenges that (her stepfather) faced," Leighton said. "He's just one person, and there are millions of veterans in our country."
CFS gets its funding through a mix of individual and business donations, foundation and government grants and fundraisers. It gets plenty of non-monetary donations — dog food, equipment — as well.
In recent years, the group has placed about 10 dogs per year with veterans in need. That number dipped to five in 2020 since the training program was in limbo for a while due to the pandemic, and many shelters put a freeze on animal adoptions. The goal for 2021 is to place eight dogs, and Leighton said one of her big goals is to expand the program in the coming years.
Since CFS formed 25 years ago, they have placed 111 dogs, which might seem like a small number, even for a small organization. But even when you consider that hours upon hours of work go into training dogs that sometimes don't work out for whatever reason, it's clear that the organization has affected many more than 111 lives.
"It's a drop in the bucket, but every single one of those dogs has made a difference," Leighton said.
Wilson-Mathis recalled a story from last October during a "trunk or treat" event when veterans and their service dogs passed out candy to kids. One of the veterans who attended had barely left his house for years until he got a service dog that both lifted his spirits and helped with day-to-day living.
"I'll never forget this," Wilson-Mathis said. "His wife looked at me said, 'I can't express to you: I have my husband back.'"
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