Service Dogs at Work

Dogs are instinctually attuned to the needs of their humans. We humans turn to mush in their paws. The made-to-order dog-and-human match-up is as inevitable as chocolate and peanut butter, beer and bacon or mustard and – yes, we’ll say it – hot dogs.

The unbreakable human-canine bond finds its most fertile expression in the partnership of people in need and dogs trained to respond. Susquehanna Service Dogs trains dogs for people with a range of medical conditions and disabilities. The fastest-growing placements are among children with autism and veterans with PTSD, says SSD Development Director Kerry Wevodau, “because people are seeing what these dogs can do.”

Still, if you or a family member hasn’t needed a service dog, you might not be aware of the complex system that trains dogs, cultivates their strengths and partners them with children and adults. Here, your questions are answered.

Can I pet a service dog?
A service dog is recognized by its harness – in SSD’s case, purple for training, green for working. “When you see a dog in harness, you should always ask before you pet it,” says Wevodau. It’s good for a dog in training to greet strangers and get accustomed to different people, but the trainer must be sure the dog is focused and behaving appropriately. Same for a working dog. Any unwelcome diversion from its purpose – perhaps it’s helping its human partner remain balanced – can have consequences.

How many dogs does Susquehanna Service Dogs train?
SSD usually has about 120 dogs in training, from birth to those preparing for the advanced training that precedes placement with a partner.

What does it take to be a puppy-raiser?
Puppy-raisers are volunteers who help acclimate young dogs to all settings and situations. They agree to take in and train a puppy for two years. Raisers initially attend training class once a week for eight weeks, followed by twice a month. They buy dog food, while SSD provides veterinarian care and “all the tools you need to train the dog,” says Wevodau. Adds veteran volunteer Valerie Pritchett, SSD is “so easy to work with. You’re appreciated as a volunteer. They understand that my schedule’s crazy, and they’re willing to work with me.”

Can families with kids be puppy-raisers?
Definitely. Many dogs work with children or go to homes with kids, so SSD makes that part of their raising and training.

Are dogs in training allowed everywhere?
State laws differ, but in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, service dogs in training have the same access rights to all public places as full working service dogs. In apartments and hotels, “you can’t get charged a pet fee for having a service dog,” says Wevodau.

How are dogs matched with partners?
At 2 years old, dogs go for advanced training, two four-month semesters known at SSD as “doggie college.” In the first semester, trainers evaluate the dogs’ strengths. After dogs and potential partners meet, the second semester involves honing the match and fine-tuning the dogs’ skills. “We customize the dogs for each partner,” says Wevodau.

Don’t miss The People’s Flea and Festival, April 22 in Grantville, sponsored by Keystone Human Services and 105.7 The X. There will be a flea market, arts and crafts and food trucks. Proceeds benefit Susquehanna Service Dogs.

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