Local nonprofit prepares shelter dogs for service

Mallard: a sweet service dog who has yet to be matched with someone. Courtesy of Acadia Generelli.

Service dogs often cost anywhere between $10,000 to $60,000 to train and register. For many, service dogs are a medical necessity, but these costs can prohibit access. But in Dutchess County and the surrounding area, Animal Farm Foundation’s Service Dog Program works against these financial barriers, training dogs and giving them to people with disabilities for free.

According to its website, Animal Farm Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to bringing dogs and people together to end discrimination for all individuals. They have numerous programs and grants to help people, alongside their service dog, overcome issues pertaining to classism, breed bans, racism, ableism and other forms of prejudice. Anyone who has any form of disability who lives within driving distance of Dutchess County is eligible to apply for a service dog. All of this work is accomplished through fundraising, generous benefactors and donations.

After going through an application process, handlers are brought to their location and are matched with a furry companion. If the person and the dog click, they tailor each dog’s training to the specific needs of their handlers, including psychological health, mobility and hearing. Psychiatric dogs can be trained to block—a technique in which the dog stands in front of or behind their handler to provide support and maintain a perimeter between the handler and other humans—and detect incoming anxiety and panic attacks before they happen. This enables their handlers to remove themselves from a stressful situation and get necessary help, as well as perform other techniques to help maintain their handler’s mental health. Hearing dogs assist their handlers by indicating when and where they hear important sounds like fire alarms, oven timers and doorbells. Mobility dogs help their handlers with tasks like retrieving objects, providing bracing and counter-balance, guiding wheelchairs and opening fridge doors.

In an effort to reduce bias and show that, “all dogs are individuals” and should not be judged by their breed, Animal Farm only trains shelter dogs that have been labelled as “pit bulls.” It’s important to note that “pit bull” is not even an actual breed, but instead a broad umbrella term with ambiguous qualities (stocky, shorthaired, muscular, etc.), which results in skewed statistics (Animal Legal & Historical Center, “Dias v. City and County of Denver,” 05.27.2009).

The American Veterinarian Association has also conducted numerous studies showing that breed is an unreliable way to predict behavior (American Veterinarian Medical Association, “Dog Bite Risk and Prevention: The Role of Breed,” 05.14.2014”). Many researchers have observed that the stereotype of pit bulls as violent may result in pit bulls being more likely to be adopted by people with violent tendencies, who will then train their dogs to be violent or treat them poorly, in addition to making it very likely for dogs to be euthanized or never adopted (Public Library of Science, “What’s in a Name? Effect of Breed Perceptions & Labeling on Attractiveness, Adoptions & Length of Stay for Pit-Bull-Type Dogs,” 03.23.2016; Journal of Forensic Sciences, “Vicious dogs: the antisocial behaviors and psychological characteristics of owners,” 03.09.2009). To counter these stereotypes, the Animal Farm Foundation actively seeks out and trains these pit bulls.

Special Programs Manager for the Service Dogs and Detection Dogs Erich Steffensen is one of several phenomenal trainers at Animal Farm. I had the pleasure of speaking with him about the selection and training processes. He and the other trainers go to shelters across the country to see if their dogs have what it takes to become service dogs. The presented pup must be able to get along with people and other animals, but not to the point where they’d leave their handler to play–in short, they should be “nonreactive.” Different programs, of course, seek different dog traits. For example, if the dog demonstrates a high “toy drive” or “hunt drive,” then they’d likely be accepted into the Detection Dogs Program, a program that trains dogs to assist the police locate drugs and firearms—and accompany officers to visit kids in their free time.

Training service dogs takes about a year. Seeing if a dog and handler match, teaching dogs to help their handlers in the specific ways they need and translating that training to the outside world is a long, complicated process. Not all of the dogs make it through training, but don’t worry! Animal Farm Foundation makes sure that each dog will be adopted, regardless of whether they’re cut out to be a service dog. If you’re looking to adopt a dog, check out Animal Farm Foundation’s list of lovable pups. They don’t even charge adoption fees. While the pups await adoption, their temporary home is a pup paradise which “looks exactly like heaven” with expansive foliage, open fields and very, very sweet dogs, according to one of their handlers, Carolyn.

Businesswoman Carolyn was never really a dog person. It wasn’t that she didn’t like them—she just preferred cats. But one day, following her doctor’s recommendation to get a service dog to assist her with her medical condition, she found Animal Farm and met Pepe, now one of her dearest friends. Pepe is a sassy, slobbery boy, who assists Carolyn day-to-day by alerting her to take her medicine, regulate her sleep patterns and other important tasks. Thanks to Pepe, Erich and Animal Farm, Carolyn is able to go outside and run her business and she gets to do it all with the cutest companion. “They gave me my life back,” remarked Carolyn. “Erich and Animal Farm have done more for me than basically anyone has ever done for me in my life. They gave me hope. I never saw myself getting to where I am now. I can’t thank them enough.”

Carolyn and Pepe! This slobbery boy is so sassy that when two dogs in their apartment building kept barking at him, he went to the giant tree outside their building, locked eyes with them and “marked” the tree as his. Carolyn still hurts her sides laughing about it to this day. Courtesy of Erich Steffesen

And yes, he is best friends with Carolyn’s cat too.

Pepe and Carolyn’s cat, Boo, chilling out like the best buds they are. Courtesy of Carolyn.

Handler Matt, a retired director of security of a medical college, echoed Carolyn’s deep appreciation for Animal Farm. He told me that Animal Farm Foundation has been an amazing support system and that he’s eternally grateful to Erich and everyone else who works there for changing his life for the better. In working with them, he’s not only found a service dog but life-long human friends.

Matt said of Animal Farm Foundation’s employees, “They don’t leave you, they’re with you forever. Anytime you need them, you call them.”

I replied, “I know I’ve said that so many times already, but that’s amazing. I cannot think of a single other word to describe it.”

The phone crackled with his laugh as he responded, “Yeah! Because that’s the best word to describe it!”

Matt had been searching for two years for a furry mobility assistant before a friend of a friend of a friend told him about Animal Farm. After having a life-changing call with Bernice, they had him come up to their location and introduced him to two dogs. That’s when he fell in love with his new best buddy, Inspector Gadget.

Matt and his best bud Inspector Gadget. Go Go Gadget! Courtesy of Matt.

Gadget is one of the sweetest and smartest dogs you’ll ever meet. Matt recalled one memorable occasion when Gadget had been lying down on the couch, basically asleep, when Matt dropped his pen onto the carpet floor. Despite the pen barely making a sound, Gadget immediately bounded from the couch, put the pen back into Matt’s hand and then resumed his rest. Gadget takes his mission of retrieving items incredibly seriously.

At the time of our conversation last Friday, Gadget and Matt haven’t finished the final steps of training, and the two do not yet live together permanently. However, they just finished one of their “sleepovers”—a series of nights where the dog stays over at the handler’s house to see how the dog behaves—and Gadget is expected to go home for good in a week or two. I still tear up thinking about it.

Despite how cuddly these dogs may appear, and the fuzzy feelings they bring passersby, service dogs perform incredibly important tasks for their handlers. Both interviewees noted the importance of respecting handlers and service dogs, especially by not disturbing them when they’re working. There is a concerning trend of people disrupting by asking what a handler’s disability is, especially if they have an “invisible” disability. Please respect the handler’s privacy and do not ask invasive questions. Not all disabilities are visible, and their visibility has no effect on their seriousness or their validity.

While most people—myself included—can understand the overwhelming desire to shower every dog in an immediate radius with love, you can show that love by not interrupting them or their handlers.

Animal Farm brings together two individuals who have been disadvantaged by restrictive societal structures. Living in an ableist society is difficult, especially when access to the tools you need to be healthy and functioning are limited. In addition to that, our society often shoves people into simplified boxes, reducing who they are and what they’ve experienced to a single label. People will assume anything about you based on your gender, the color of your skin, your ability and so many other simplistic traits that do not define who you are. The same goes for dogs; people assume they’ll be violent, obedient, smart or dumb just based on their breed. We know by now that generalizing either species based on simplistic traits isn’t even accurate, but it still affects the day-to-day lives of these individuals.

Animal Farm brings together individuals to increase access to the outside world once more. This enables them to demonstrate that they are more capable than others believe them to be. Both Carolyn and Matt noted that while their dogs are the ones being trained, they have learned so much from their furry friends.

2 Comments

  1. I had the pleasure of meeting gadget last Friday. It was wonderful to see the relationship between man and dog. That is one of the nicest people I have had the pleasure of meeting in a very long time he and his wife Laura are a perfect match for gadget. God bless you for such a wonderful thing that you were doing for people with disabilities

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