New Putnam County facility trains service dogs
By Alison Rooney
As a volunteer puppy raiser for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, Nancy Teague felt enriched by the experience but frustrated by the oversupply of dogs. Although by one estimate only 2 percent of blind people use a guide dog, there are 13 accredited facilities around the country that train them.
Meanwhile, another national organization Teague was familiar with, Canine Companions, which places service dogs with people with physical disabilities, such as mobility or hearing difficulties, has a waiting list.
To fill this unmet need, Teague last fall founded a nonprofit, Putnam Service Dogs, to provide free animals to people with disabilities other than blindness. The group has just received its first three puppies for training, all rescues from high-kill shelters in the South.
“Put an incredible dog with a person who can benefit from it and that person becomes better and stronger,” Teague says. “There’s nothing more rewarding.”
A former art gallery owner and real estate agent, Teague moved five years ago from Brooklyn to Brewster, where her organization is based. For Putnam Service Dogs, she decided to use mixed-breed rescue pups rather than the more common purebred labs and retrievers, which she believes too often have genetic deficiencies due to in-breeding.
Ideally the adoptions are completed when a puppy is 8 to 10 weeks old, she says, because “from 3 to 14 weeks is the critical learning period, and using that time to give them experiences to make them as confident as possible is key.”
“They cannot be timid,” she explains. “They need to be exposed to all the novelty they will encounter. The No. 1 reason dogs are released from service is a lack of confidence. They have to be friendly and be able to navigate crowds and need to focus; they can’t be easily distracted. Basically the dog can’t be a dog in the sense that they can’t socialize with other dogs. They need to focus on the person.”
About two of every three potential service dogs fail the training, she says. “Labs, retriever and shepherd mixes do best.” Dogs that don’t meet the standards are adopted out.
“We need good retrievers for people who drop things and need assistance that way and also small, alert dogs for those with hearing difficulties,” she says. “Dogs can even be trained to push buttons to open elevator or entry doors, help people dress and operate light switches. Each person’s needs will be different, and therefore each dog’s training needs to be individually tailored.”
Formal training begins at 15 months. Before that, volunteer puppy raisers teach basic commands and socialization, which will be useful later because a dog often helps its person overcome isolation. While people might shy away from a stranger with a physical handicap, a dog makes them more approachable.
Along with its continuing fundraising (its first golf tournament will be held May 12 at the Centennial Golf Club in Carmel), Putnam Service Dogs is recruiting puppy raisers, who must meet stringent guidelines, as do any dogs they own.
“If there’s a dog there who jumps on visitors, unfortunately we can’t place a puppy in that home because dogs copy the behavior of other dogs,” Teague says. “We also need people who are home all day, because at this age, the puppies can’t be left alone for more than an hour.” For information, see putnamservicedogs.org.