Canine Assistants | American Dog With Victoria Stilwell


I’m here at Canine Assistants, which is
an amazing organization that trains dogs to assist people with medical conditions and
disabilities. The reason why I love this organization is that it helps these people have a new lease
on life, but also, it trains dogs using positive reenforcement methods only. And I think when
you see it, the results speak for themselves. So join me today, as we take you into a day
in the life of this amazing organization to see how dogs literally change people’s lives.
I’m Victoria Stilwell, join me as I travel the U.S. and discover stories of dogs and
humans impacting each others lives for the better. This is American Dog. You run the
most, I think the most, incredible organization. What inspired you to set it up? Well, it’s
my privilege, certainly, to be able to do this all the time. And it came from a personal
experience. When I was 16, I woke up one morning and got out of bed to go to the bathroom,
and I fell on the floor. Several days later, I was diagnosed as having Multiple Sclerosis.
And because I was so young then, and it was a long time ago, they really — the prognosis
was really pretty grim. So we’d always loved animals, and my father had just seen an article
in a magazine about a woman in California who was working with dogs to help people use
wheelchairs. Bonnie Bergin is her name. He contacted her, and she said: You know, we
have three dogs in training. Georgia is a long way away. We really are not gonna be
able to provide a dog for your daughter. And he sat — I didn’t know that he was contacting
her — and he came and sat on the edge of my bed one night and said: You know, I talked
to this woman, and unfortunately, she can’t provide a dog, but I have an idea. Maybe this
is what you’re meant to do? Let’s do this. How long has Canine Assistants been in effect?
This is our twenty-first year now. Twenty-first year. Yeah. That’s amazing to have that.
So obviously, it’s very successful. This organization was founded on one thing: And
that’s Jennifer’s passion. She’s super passionate about what she does. She’s super
passionate about the people that she helps. And it’s been the generosity of others that
have kept it going. And, you know, since we don’t charge anything for any of the services.
You charge nothing? We don’t charge anything. So when people come and get a dog… That’s
right. They — it’s for free? It’s for free. We fly them here — they come from all
over the country. We fly them here. We put them up at a hotel down the street for two
weeks, and we provide their meals, and their transportation over here. They spend two weeks
working here, either at Canine Assistants, or out in the community doing things like
riding public transportation, so that when they get home, they’ll have a feel for what
it is, what it’s like to be moving around with a dog. But they don’t pay anything.
And so, it’s only because of the generosity of others that we’re able to do what we
do. Some of the recipients here today: Tell me a little bit about them. Certainly, Ciara,
with the seizure dog — her condition is very, very serious, isn’t it? Seizure alert dogs
are relatively new, are they? At this moment, no one can say for certain to what stimuli
the dog is responding when they anticipate that a seizure is coming. We say seizure response
dogs. We are very close, I think, to figuring out what this is. And, as a matter of fact,
we’re undertaking a research project with a university to determine, you know, to what
the dog is responding. And I think it’s gonna be scent-based detection. Because I’ve
seen dogs that have never, I mean, they were born in my hands, they’ve never seen anybody
have a seizure. And they know. And when they know, it upsets them. Alright, so, tell us
your name. My name is Ciara. And what is your dog’s name? Yukon. Yukon — and what does
Yukon do for you? He’s a working dog, and he helps me with all my seizures. When Yukon
senses that, he’s gonna be able to go and tell your mom, is that right? Well, he usually
runs and barks at my mom, and I have a big, ginormous seizure. So really, he’s picking
up on the scent just before she’s about to have a seizure? So far that’s what he’s
done. I mean, she’s only been with him for ten days. Yes. And the two that he’s alerted
to, it’s been before the seizure. How long before the seizure? 15 minutes before the
seizure. 15 minutes — so that really gives ample time, doesn’t it? How is this going
to change your life? Tremendously. She is a very spirited girl, as you can see, and
right now has little to no independence, because we can’t leave her. She’s been — she’s
waited a long time for Yukon — it’s been 5 1/2 years. And last summer, I found her
unconscious on the bathroom floor after she had a seizure and fallen. And I didn’t know
it. I thought the noise I had heard was her closing the door, and it was actually her
head hitting the floor. So she now never goes to the bathroom unless somebody’s with her.
So just something as simple as that, to even just being left alone to play with her brother,
who is four — and he now runs to get me if I’m cooking dinner and they’re in the
living room. So it — it gives me a peace of mind for her safety, but it gives her a
sense of independency that she didn’t have before. What happens at night time? Ciara
used to have 150 seizures a day. A 150 seizures a day? A 150 a day. She was in a helmut and
couldn’t talk or walk. And then we put her on a special diet called the Ketogenic Diet,
and it stopped the daily seizures, but she still would have 45 minutes seizures once
a month, every month. We changed medication — now she has, instead of one long seizure
a month, she has two to five short ones a week. So for the last five years, I’ve slept
with Ciara to try — in an effort to keep her safe at night, in case she has a seizure.
But now, Yukon is gonna start doing that. So it might take a couple weeks for the transition.
But eventually, he’ll be in there, and I’ll be in my room, so that if she has a seizure,
he’ll come get me. Talking about scent: Allison, with diabetes — is that scent related?
We know that dogs have an easy time, relativity speaking, detecting high and low blood sugars
and the change in, you know, in oder in your mouth, in your saliva, sweat. So when Stuart
knows that Allison’s blood sugar is high or low, it’s definitely scent based. Can
you tell me how you trained Stuart to recognize a high-low blood sugar levels? We started
by exposing him just to the scent itself in multiple — we actually use little scent canisters.
And we let him, you know, come up and smell it. And as he smelled it, we would, you know,
click or say “yes” and mark that that was the scent that we wanted him smell for.
At first, every canister had the scent we wanted. And then one would have a blank. And
then two would have a blank. And finally, you know, we were able to move it around and
put it in different people’s hands, and he could still find it. So now you’re older,
you say you can’t feel when a low or a high is coming on? Is coming on. So you really
rely on Stuart to be able to tell you? Yes, yes. How is this gonna change your life? I
have to check my blood sugar once an hour. Once an hour? Yeah. Wow. And, I mean, with
Stuart, it would help — I wouldn’t have to check as often, because he could tell me
when I needed to check. So what will happen if you didn’t have a dog to alert you? If
I didn’t have a dog to alert me, and I didn’t feel the blood sugar coming on, which I don’t
usually do, then I could, if I’m too low, I could go into a coma or a seizure. If I’m
too high, same exact thing — coma or a seizure. So, you’re 13-years-old, you wanna go to
the mall by yourself. You do not want your mother to come along with you. Yes. You gonna
take your dog instead? Exactly. Does your experience make you very empathetic towards
other people’s experience? I do think that I am able to understand, sort of from their
position, what it’s like. That it’s just not that you can’t pick up your pen. It’s
that everything in your life is 100 times more difficult. I mean, like Sam, what that
young man did for this country is something that I don’t know that any of us could ever
repay. I mean, he was physically wounded, and he was emotionally, nearly destroyed.
Where were you stationed? I was stationed in Fort Bragg, and I had a deployment over
Iraq. In Iraq — how long were you in Iraq for? One tour. Now, what gave you the idea
of getting a service dog? I’ve always had animals back home. And I did go through PTSD
impatient for 8 months in West Virginia. And my therapy told me: Sam, I think you need
a dog in your life. And she told me about the program. And since then, this was like
a light bulb — all I could think about is waiting on her to come in my life. How long
did you have to wait? I’ve waited 3 1/2 years now. 3 1/2 years. Yeah. What was life
like before, after you came back from Iraq? Before actually getting deployed, I think
everything was normal. I’m the type that I’m out all the time. I just love life.
I like to work a lot. After I coming back, I just start having a lot trouble sleeping,
nightmares. I could’t put my hand on the knob of my own apartment and just get out,
because I just were so anxious and just can’t. I honestly hated people. Never had a successful
relationship. I wanted to go back to school, and could’t do it. Too many people. Too
many students get on my nerves. Didn’t understand why, so my only comfort zone was just to stay
home and deal with it. And I would say that — in the sake of the people that helped me
here– I really don’t like talking about it, but I appreciate how much they’ve helped
me. I did overdose a few times. My doctor one day asked me, after getting back, is there
any hope in your life that you’re looking for? I guess they’re trying to make sure
I’m having hope, and I’m not having any symptoms of suicide anymore. So the only thing
I could think of was getting my dog. I didn’t know if she was a he or a she, so I said “just
waiting on my dog.” Why do you think it is having a dog by your side — what does
she make you feel? My mind, pretty much, is focusing on her, and trying to see where she’s
at, and how she looks at me. And connecting with her than worrying about who’s behind
my back, and who’s that guy in the corner — what he’s doing — and all that. I just,
my focus shifts a little bit, and it makes me a little bit — a little bit calm in a
way. Now you have her. Yeah. So the future is going to be a lot brighter for you? Yeah,
I’m excited about going back home. Go back to school. I did sign up for a few classes
before, but I never made it, because I couldn’t take it. So this time, I’m excited to make
it — make it different. Chris, you’re the head trainer here at Canine Assistants. How
do you go about starting this whole process? It takes about 18 months of training for the
dogs to be ready to go with a recipient. So I get ahold of the puppies when they’re
about 7 weeks. We build a friendship and a trust and a bond. And that’s how we move
through training — is they trust me, and I trust them. What is your sort of method
of creating that trust and creating that bond? You know, I have to have a relationship with
the dog. I don’t want it to be, you know, just a one-sided relationship where I ask
for stuff and they do it for me. I have to sort of build their trust. And I start with
something that’s very simple, which is this: It’s just a settle, a settle command. And
I just put them in sort of a vulnerable state — like they’re belly-up and they’re unsure.
And we just sort of practice learning that being in a submissive position is safe, and
it’s okay, and they’re not in danger. They’re protected, and they know that I
have there — I have them safe. A relationship with an animal is no different — you have
to show that you’re a worthy leader, and that you can be trusted with that relationship.
And this is the very start right here. So by the end of their training, they should
know around 90 commands. But we start simple, just like everyone. We start with: “sit”
and “shake” and “down” and “roll” and “heel” and “lap” and “off”
and “stay”. Those are the most important. That’s sort of the fundamentals — the building
blocks of all training. I am physically capable of dominating this dog, right? I can say you’re
gonna sit, and you’ll sit. But a recipient who is a quadriplegic is never going to be
able to say “you’ll sit, because I’ll tell ya to sit,” — the dog will be like,
“well, how are you gonna make me?” Our dogs have to enjoy working. So even when they
have the choice of whether they should work or they shouldn’t, they’ll do it because
they enjoy work. These dogs work really hard, and they dedicate the first two years of their
life to training, and then they’re gonna dedicate the rest of their life to their person.
And so, at the very least, they deserve our respect and our love, and they certainly shouldn’t
deal with punishment. And that’s what we try and instill in these little guys is work
is fun, and it’s good. Right? Our last audit, it was about $25,000 a dog to train and place
and care for. The recipients are extremely important to us. The dogs are too. You know,
they’re our dogs. We’re responsible for them. That’s why if someone comes and gets
a dog from us, and they can’t afford to properly take care of that dog when they leave
here, we cover that cost for the life of the dog. Because we can’t send our dogs out
with someone that is having a difficult time feeding themselves or taking themselves to
the doctor. We’re the only organization that I’m aware of that’ll do that. It’s
hard not to get attached to the recipients. I know that you get attached to every single
one of them. I do. I particularly became very fond of Charlie. What is his condition? He
has a neuromuscular disease called Spinal Muscular Atrophy. So it’s genetic, and he
was born with it. We didn’t start seeing signs until he was probably 4 or 5, 6-months-old.
But yes, it’s genetic, and he was born with it, so… Okay. He’s always been… He’s
had a chair, and he’s always been like that. Yes, he got his first chair when he was like
a little older than 18 months. Okay. So he’s been driving in his chair since then. Now,
what is it like, mom and dad, for Charlie on a daily basis? Other than being on his
computer, he’s able to play on his computer, but other than that, if he’s not in his
chair, he’s dependent on mom and dad for, or somebody, for everything. If he drops something,
he can’t pick it up. If he wanted the lights turned on or anything brought back to him,
he can’t do it himself. So, he’s pretty much dependent on us. So really, Meadow is
going to give him more independence. Yes. Because is it — I saw Meadow picking things
up and bringing stuff to you, and that’s what she can do without your mom and dad being
there. So will Meadow bring you more independence? Yes. Good. Does that feel good? Uh huh. Yeah.
Because we don’t — we love mom and dad, but we don’t want them around all the time.
When Charlie was younger, a lot of the challenges we faced were physical challenges for Charlie
that we could help him with. And as he’s getting older, Charlie’s in 3rd grade, we
find a lot more the challenges are social, and finding ways for him to interact with
his classmates and socially. So we’re just thrilled with his comments about Meadow, because
that’s one of the big pieces we hope Meadow brings to Charley’s life. How hard has it
been for Charlie to kind of be accepted, as it were? You know, it’s just been happening
in the last, I’d say, couple months, were he has said he doesn’t want to go out in
public, because people stare at him. And we were at the mall — sorry. No, it’s okay.
We were at the mall for our first outing on Saturday with her, and he left the mall and
said he felt like a movie star, because everyone wanted to see him and Meadow. So that in it
of itself has made this whole thing worth it. I mean, she does nothing but help people
see him and not the chair. Yeah. I’m sorry. So having a dog… No, no, please. By having
the dog, it makes him more approachable. It makes you approachable. So people come up
to you — and what was it like then? So before, when you were in the mall, you didn’t like
it that people were just looking at you sitting in your chair? Uh huh. Yeah? And now, what
was it like then, going to the mall the other day? Like people wanted to come by me, see
me. They also tried to pet the dog. So really, everyone — you kind of found out, instead
of people looking at you all the time, they were like: “Wow, who is this guy with this
dog?” Did that feel good? Uh huh. Yeah. It really does. So are you ready to be a movie
star? Yes. Yes, good. Good, I’m glad. Everyone one of these families is so strong. They’re
so happy in their lives. You know, they don’t walk around thinking that there is a problem,
that they have a disability. They have issues — we all have issues. And theirs are just
a little different than yours or mine. And particularly, the kids are so resilient. And
these dogs mean so much to them. Forget the task they do of picking up dropped items and
opening and closing doors and turning lights off and on, the emotional support they get
from having this dog with them just breaks so much social ice, that it’s a wonderful
thing to see. Charlie is brilliant. He’s a brilliant young man who is very charming
and funny. And nobody — I mean, I think it’s hard for people when they see him. We do a
great job in this country of saying: “Now, you leave little Charlie alone.” You know,
“Don’t bother little Charlie.” And so it makes, you know, people feel afraid to
say: “What’s the matter?” “Why do you use that chair?” You know, we just get
very nervous about those things. And in Charlie’s case, Meadow is gonna open the world socially
for him in ways I don’t even think Charlie completely understands yet. You know, sometimes
the fight to get out of bed every day is the biggest fight these people will ever face.
And one of the great gifts the dogs give is that they — you have to get up. I mean, you
have to let them out. Seriously, I think, you know, they say the statistics are around
65 percent of people who get assistance dogs go back to work or school within the first
year after placement. And I say it’s because you have to get up and let them out to go
to the bathroom. You’re up. But, you know, it’s also that when the dog looks at their
person, you’re, you know — you’re damaged, and even your mom has to overlook your disability
somehow. The dog looks up at you, they don’t see that. Matters not at all to the dog. Because
in the dog’s eyes, you are the most perfect creation God has ever put on the face of this
Earth. And I can’t tell you how I see that change people. Being here at Canine Assistants
really gives me a new appreciation of how lucky I am for the life that I lead. Also,
being able to witness these amazing dogs working with these incredible people that have to
face such adversity in their life. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have. I’m
Victoria Stilwell for eHow Pets.

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