by Angelique Caffrey, Photography by Paul Vasiliades
A Grassroots Effort That Took Seed and Blossomed
Scientists know that it only takes a few minutes of having a dog in your presence to have major, quantifiable impacts on the body and mind. That’s why so many physicians and therapists recommend the companionship of a dog to help reduce anxiety, depression, high blood pressure and a host of other conditions. Truly, having companionship with a four-legged pal can be powerful, especially when the furry friend has been trained to perform daily tasks beyond ordinary canine responsibilities.
At Susquehanna Service Dogs (SSD), now a part of Keystone Human Services’ international spectrum of services, director Pam Foreman regularly sees how essential the dogs her organization breeds, trains, and places can be.
In 1993, SSD founder Nancy Fierer was raising a family and experienced an epiphany: She had a natural penchant for training dogs. Fierer began to explore ways that she could nurture and expand this talent in ways that would help others. This led her to start a completely volunteer-based program on her property that began as a collaboration with the Tri-County Easter Seals.
The straightforward concept Fierer developed was to raise and train dogs to sell to families and individuals who could benefit from having the advantages that come with a trustworthy service animal, such as safety, companionship, and assistance.
Today, SSD has grown exponentially, possessing a broad reach thanks to the more than 300 volunteers and approximately nine full-time equivalent employees who spend in excess of 25,000 hours each month making magic happen. As Foreman notes, it’s a unique situation because the program takes no money from insurance or government dollars; donations fuel the organization.
A Proven Process for Successful Outcomes
Though most people in the Central Pa. area who interact with SSD immediately think of full-grown dogs sporting logo-ed harnesses, the process to develop a service animal takes many months and plenty of work. In fact, puppies begin training on day 1.
In general, most of the dogs used are Labrador retrievers as they tend to respond well to education. There are numerous dogs who are part of the American Breeding Cooperative breeding stock, and organizations like SSD share breeding lines to help the industry get better dogs.
“We had a dog who just flew out yesterday morning as part of ‘Puppies in Flight,’ which transports dogs,” says Foreman. “The dog flew to British Columbia!”
After the puppies are born, they are fostered and raised by volunteers who spend time loving the young creatures in a warm, unconditionally supportive environment.
Susan Knode, a puppy-raiser, couldn’t be more positive about SSD and the outcomes of the system. “The opportunity to see a dog working with an individual or in a group setting, such as a special-needs classroom, is very moving,” she says. “Our dogs change lives regardless of the specifics of the tasks they perform. It feels good to raise a puppy and know that they’re going to grow up to do great things. It’s exciting, and obviously, it’s an addiction. I’m raising puppy No. 6!”
Though most of these puppy-raisers are individuals like Knode, Dickinson College has a Dogs on Campus program that gives college students a chance to care for the animals, as does The Pennsylvania State University and Millersville University.
Foreman explains that this type of program is growing at other universities in the region.
Beginning when the pups are several months old, more intensive weekly training sessions take place. Over time, it becomes clear which dogs are best suited to be placed in homes. At that point, the dogs are partnered with appropriate households, an arrangement determined through a rigorous application process followed by home visits, handler-training and much more. When a match is made, it’s a wonderful scenario that can absolutely change lives. It’s well worth the up-to-four years most individuals wait due to limited numbers of acceptable psychiatric-service dogs, balance dogs, seizure-response dogs, mobility-issue dogs, dogs for those on the autism spectrum, dogs in treatment and veterans court, courthouse dogs, etc.
For the dogs who are less interested in learning the skills necessary to earn an SSD badge, life after training is just as pleasant and essential. They are typically adopted very quickly, and their raisers are given first choice of adoption. Police departments may even choose them to become part of their teams. No matter where they go, the dogs spend the rest of their days being pampered and fawned over just like their working brothers and sisters. Overall, SSD has set up a reliable system that makes an incredible impact on lives.
Stories of Life, Love and Happiness
Charles Shultz, the creator of Peanuts, is famous for his statement, “Happiness is a warm puppy.”
That’s certainly the feeling among people whose lives have been touched by SSD. “We have so many great stories,” says Foreman. “For instance, one student at Hilltop Academy was despondent. She told us she had decided she was going to kill herself. When the on-site Susquehanna Service Dog came over and looked her in the eyes, she says she thought, ‘No, I’m not going to.’ It changed everything for her.”
In the words of another person whose car accident forced her to relearn walking, talking and the activities of daily living, her service dog has been a godsend: “SSD Bridge and I started our life together as partners in June of 2015. I’ve never taken a shower without him patiently waiting on the floor just outside the tub. He is my heart. He walks beside me, always checking in on me to see if our speed needs adjusted… [He] picks things up for me when my hands fail me, saving me from dizziness that always happens when my head dips too low. He not only meets my physical needs, he also anticipates my emotional needs. He is filled with love that can only be the result of being raised and trained with love.”
Fundraising as a Way of Life
It takes about $25,000 to properly breed, raise, train and place an SSD canine. This means fundraising is integral to the program. Beyond being associated with the United Way of the Capital Region, SSD attends and hosts multiple events. One of the biggest is the Highmark Walk for a Healthy Community, scheduled for May 21 this year. At the walk, volunteers will bring their dogs out for a trot to showcase their skills and raise awareness.
“We are trying to raise more than $30,000 at this year’s walk,” says Foreman. “We need people to get involved and walk or just donate!”
SSD will also participate in the People’s Flea on April 23, 2016, which is sponsored by 105.7 the X and Keystone Human Services. Plus, donations can always be made via their website or Facebook page.
“We typically spend about $1,300 to $1,500 each month for food and $7,000 a month in vet bills,” explains Foreman. “We only place 15 to 20 dogs annually and would love to see that number go up to 25 so we can decrease the wait time.”
Help from the Heart
Like all nonprofits, SSD is only as strong as its cadre of supporters. Located on a 56-acre farm in Grantville, the organization constantly needs help. From home visits to transportation, volunteers keep the wheels going. New volunteers can get in touch with SSD, and if accepted, they will become part of the new volunteer class. From there, they can branch off into other areas, possibly becoming a raiser, a whelper, a sitter or other type of volunteer.
“It takes dedication to be an SSD volunteer, as well as time and energy,” explains Foreman. “I’m humbled every day by our volunteers.”
Foreman is also amazed by the dogs who learn to expertly retrieve items, open and close doors, use light switches, press medical-alert buttons, make space around people, pick up objects made of everything including metal and ignore commotion.
“Each person who volunteers their time in any capacity,” Foreman says, “each person partnered with an SSD dog, each employee and each person who provides a monetary or in-kind donation of any amount makes this program what it is.”