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Communique: "Canines For Service" Offers Free Service Dogs-And Needs More Trainers

Colleen Vihlen & Pat Hairston with 2 dogs from Canines for Service

I figured it couldn't hurt to ask Pat Hairston, the Program Director for Canines for Service, about my Chihuahua, Bela. Could she do anything useful? It turns out a service dog needs to weigh at least 60 pounds and measure 23 inches at the shoulders to accomplish the 90 tasks a service dog is trained to do. So Bela is out. Luckily, Pat Hairston and Program Coordinator Colleen Vihlen find plenty of dogs to train. Because the demand for service animals is so high, what they really is more trainers. A Training Program (for humans) is coming up on July 10th; the application deadline to enroll is June 1. 

Listen above to hear Hairston and Vihlen talk about Canines for Service. If you believe you or someone you know could benefit from a service dog, read more here. To donate funds or time to the organization, read more here. Canines for Service provides service dogs to people who need them for free.

Credit WHQR/gg
Colleen Vihlen (l) & Pat Hairston from Canines for Service

Here is an extended transcript of our conversation-beginning with service dogs and ending with monkeys.

Pat: Canines for Service is the oldest serving organization in North Carolina providing service dogs. We were founded in 1996. We are the only accredited service dog provider in North Carolina. One of only 60 in the United States and we provide our service dogs to our clients at no cost to them.

If you have a service dog you have a highly skilled dog that's been trained to perform tasks at your request to help mitigate a disability. What kind of disabilities can be served. For our organization we serve people with mobility impairments and we serve veterans with mobility impairments post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury.

Gina: What kind of things can a dog do for people?

Pat:  The dogs can actually pick up things as small as a dime. They can retrieve any dropped item as long as it's not weighing more than about 15 pounds. They can help to open a door. They can turn on lights turn off lights. They can be taught to pull a wheelchair. They can brace to help a person recover from a fall. They can load a washing machine and unload a dryer.

And no they don't fold or put away- because everybody asks.

And for our veterans with post-traumatic stress we have a series of commands, they can assist the individual with some of the issues related to their PTSD. They can wake them up if they're having difficulties waking in the morning. They will teach the dog to wake to a specific alarm that the person may be using. They can create a space around the person to help them feel like people are not closing in to them when they're out in public.

Gina: Let's talk about being out in public with a service canine when you're out in public, you know, there are a lot of places where dogs are not allowed. But there are those rules are not necessarily applied with a service animal. Are there any barriers with that still?

Pat: There are still barriers with access. So according to the Americans With Disabilities Act, which is the federal law that covers service dogs, a service animal is afforded the same access as a wheelchair walker cane or crutch. So they are allowed to be a company their person wherever that person goes. Part of the barriers to access these days is the number of ill-behaved dogs and fake service dogs that are creating horrible obstacles for the people who live with disabilities every single day.

Service dogs should be seen and never heard when they're out in public, particularly if you're at a restaurant. That dogs should be laying down underneath the table. So really no one ever knows that that dogs are there. Some of the other things that are creating issues for access for people with disabilities and their service dogs is the general public does not understand they should not touch the dog, pet the dog, whistle at the dog, bark at the dog or otherwise distract the animal from the work that it's doing.

Gina: And you shouldn't give the dog food.

Pat: We really we restrict the food that our dogs eat. They eat premium dog food and really good quality treats and they reward it for their job. They're not given people food. And there's a key reason for that. You're going out to a restaurant--who wants to see a service dog sitting there begging for food. And by the way we've seen-it not with ours. But that's an inappropriate behavior for a service dog in public.

Gina:  Which then is giving the dogs a bad name.

Pat:  It is. It is giving service dogs a bad name. But but really it's not just a matter of giving the dog a bad name. It's it's harmful to people with disabilities who live with their disability every day and rely on that dog for many different things. Maybe it's a person who has a seizure disorder so the dog can alert to them that they're going to have a seizure or the dog is harnessed to support a person for walking and balance and by distracting the dog enough the person could fall and injure themselves. We as the general public have to think beyond our selfishness of “oh there's a dog, I love it, I want to pet it.” Well yes. Oh there's a dog you love it. You can't pet it; admire it from a distance.

There are things that any organization or business can ask when someone brings a dog in and these are recommended by the Americans With Disabilities Act. Is this your pet? Textbook answer is, "no it's my service dog." In this case they have to be able to tell the person asking what tasks the dog does to help them with their disability. They don't have to tell them their disability, but the person at the door or the register can say, what does the dog do to serve you? Picks up dropped items, can open the door, can turn on a light. It has to be able to do actual tasks that are trained into the dog or for the dog to help that person.

If a person says the dog makes me feel good that's not a service dog. There's a category of dog out there called “emotional support dog” or animal. They are nothing more than a companion animal that helps a person who has anxiety depression or mental health issue. It helps them feel better. It does not have legal access under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Gina: I think that a lot of businesses would feel uncomfortable questioning someone if they actually have a disability.

Pat: Well they're not really questioning them if they have a disability because they can't ask that under the Americans With Disabilities Act. But they are trying to ascertain if this is a viable service dog or a fake one. And every business owner has that legal right to do that and need to do that. I think today what's happening is everybody's afraid of bad press or a lawsuit. There are laws that help the business owner. The state law under that is state statute 168. They can turn to that.


They should not have any animal in their business that's disruptive, barking, urinating, defecating or shedding all over and smelly and stinky or running around off leash visiting every other patron there or jumping on the table or sitting on a table or being fed from a fork or a spoon. We've seen it all. Those are not service dogs.


Gina:  This is one of the things this is an issue for you guys that's really important is to to stop the fake service dog situation going on and to make sure that businesses and other public places understand their rights to ascertain what kind of animal this is.

Pat: Yes, it is very important. Locally, for our Wilmington businesses and the greater Wilmington region, Canines for Service is willing to come out with the staff and do a training session on what they can ask what is a service dog how his service dog should behave. About two weeks ago, we were down here at one of the local restaurants, Front Street Brewery, and did just that with their management team to help educate them on what their rights are as a business owner.

Gina: Interesting, and you do that for free?

Pat: We do that for free for our business owners.

Gina: And you also give dogs for free. You train these dogs for free.

Pat: Is this that this is like the worst business model?  

Colleen:  I can jump in on this one. So we are a nonprofit so we run solely off of fundraisers, grants, donors and what we like to refer to as "investors." Our greatest need right now is investors.  While we like receiving the money and need the money,we are looking for investors who become involved in our organization and support our mission to help serve people with disabilities. So we want people who can support us financially, who want to volunteer with us, who want to be active in our board or on a committee. So that's really our greatest need.

Gina: That's sounds like a donation of money, time and/or expertise.

Colleen: And passion, too. I think passionate about the cause and the mission and how strong is the organization.

Gina: How does a person know that a service animal can help them?

Pat:  Interesting enough, I was talking to a North Carolinian yesterday who's read a little bit about service dogs, looked up on it, but never talked to someone in a providing organization. And he was able to learn quite a bit about what a service dog could do for his particular needs, he is mobility impaired. But it is an education process for the person who wants to think about utilizing a service dog as well. The commitment of a service dog is really 24/7. They're there with you all the time. They're trained to serve. They're not trained to lie around and just look cute and wag their tail. They want a job. They have spent a year to a year and a half learning to do that job for our organization. They're taught 90 skills to assist someone. So it's a very personal decision if you want to make or can make that commitment in your life.


We also let our potential clients know that it's a 10 year commitment. The dog may be able to work for a good eight years, but then it needs to be retired and loved. And that's a very personal decision for our clients as well, whether they keep them or whether they look for an adoptive home through us or through their family members for that dog. But our people that have their service dogs it has changed their lives enormously. They're doing more things. Some of our veterans- they're engaging back in public, they're taking their families to dinner. They're planning a vacation of a lifetime that they never thought they could do before.

Gina:  I just imagine it gives a certain confidence. I think one thing is that if you are injured or handicapped or you know have seizures, you are afraid to be alone in public.

And then when you have this animal with you that you know you can count on that you know isn't going to leave, that is definitely standing right by your side to give you confidence.

Pat: I believe it does. The other thing it does for the person is it takes the focus off of them and puts it on the dog. We have a female client who's been living in a wheelchair for most of her adult life. And since she got her service dog she is comfortable enough to go to the store by herself because people are looking at her service dog and not staring at her in her wheelchair. It engages people in a conversation. She looks at life differently now with her four-legged companion by her side. You know, he carries the grocery bag out to the car, he loads the grocery bag, carries them into the house.

Think about a person that is in a wheelchair. They're busy doing something and they're writing something down they dropped their pen and they can't bend down to pick it up. And the service animal is there to do that for them. Many of our clients, not all of them, still have a landline.

And if they have a cordless phone we do teach our dogs to find phones if the person doesn't know where they left the device and they can hit the button on the phone to make a little receiver and then our dogs can maneuver around the location to find where that phone is and bring it to them. It's a pretty cool skill to see actually.

Colleen:  Our biggest thing coming up is we have launched a student trainer program so that is to teach people how to train a service dog. So we have had two pilot programs for that currently going on and they have gone very well. So starting in July we're launching a fee-based

program to teach people how to train service dogs and that will be out of our facility here in Wilmington. So we have open enrollment for that right now. There is a huge demand for service dogs right now and just not enough quality trainers in the industry. So we're hoping to really be able to train a lot of people how to train a very quality service dog. Like Pat said, our dogs are trained in over 90 commands and can do a lot of things for people. So we're trying

to get more people out into the community to be able to train service dogs for the demand and hopefully be able to meet that at some point.

Gina: So if I took this, do you think I could get my Chihuahua to do anything useful?

Pat: How do we answer this because no matter what we go through this we're like not going to work out well!

Gina: It is useless.

Pat: No no he's not. He loves you. You love him. He's not useless.

The curriculum is not intended for someone to come in to train their own dog as a service dog. We rescue shelter dogs. We use all rescue dogs. No breeding program. So the steward will come in to train a dog that we select and they'll train it through basic intermediate and advance and hopefully placement with its client. But it's not intended for somebody to come in and learn this for their own dog.

Gina: Besides the fact that we know Chihuahuas would never ever learn anything that would be useful.

Pat: I want to see a Chihuahua carry a grocery bag with something in it. Poor little thing you can't do that.

Colleen: Shelter dogs- that's a huge difference-there are other organizations that do it. But a lot of organizations have a breeding program, so we really pride ourselves on being able to take a dog from a shelter and save that dog's life and then open up another spot in that shelter for another dog. We rescue all of our dogs between the ages of 1 and 2. And we temperament-test them and get their hips evaluated to make sure they're in good health and good standing. And that is how we select our dogs. They have to be at least 60 pounds and 23 inches at the shoulder to be able to do the physical work they may end up doing for the person they're eventually placed with.

Pat: And so what happens if a dog comes into our program from a shelter and we find out that it's really not destined to be a service dog--the good news is it will never go back to the shelter will seek an adoptive home for that dog. But I will warn your listeners it is rare that we release the dog. There has to be really something that has happened or a health issue it can overcome going to the big box stores and working in public. So if people are thinking go I'll get a trained dog and adopt it. It's not very often we do that.

Gina:  So let me ask you, folks who think that maybe a service dog could help-do they contact you or do they contact a physician or how do how do they go ahead and start inquiring about getting one?

Pat: They would contact us at our office or visit our Web site. There's quite a bit of information on our Web site and we actually encourage anyone who's thinking about a service dog to go visit our Web site and look down the pages on service dogs to understand the commitment of it. But they can contact us speak to us about their needs. All of our clients have to start with an application so we can assess whether we can serve them or not. We don't necessarily need a prescription from a doctor but what we do need to know is the extent of their disability and how a service dog from our organization could serve them is what we're trying to figure out.

Gina: And have you guys thought about branching out into service cats?

Pat: Well, we really can't and here's why. Under the Americans With Disabilities Act in 2011, it isrevised to specifically say service dogs and in some exceptions, miniature horses. And no we're not thinking about miniature horses.

Gina: What about monkeys?

Pat: They're excluded from the law...part of the problem with monkeys is they don't always follow a command sequence. So here's an example that's just going to probably make people realize OK she is right: So the monkey has been taught to dress and undress that person may be a quadriplegic. And part of that is buttoning and unbuttoning his shirt. So you're out to dinner and your service potentially monkey is there and the monkey decides it's time to undress you. And they start unbuttoning your shirt. OK. Totally inappropriate in a public environment. Also because of a lot of the diseases and health concerns with monkeys-- I'm probably going to annoy the people who love monkeys out there. Hey I like them too but not for service animals.

There are concerns over health and temperament because monkeys do what they want and they can turn more aggressive as they age which is documented, monkeys are a lot more like people than dogs are.

Gina: Your service dogs are going to do what you ask when you ask it to do it.

Pat: Yes, it's not going to get creative.


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