"I always wanted to train my own dog to be a therapy dog and take him to hospitals and nursing homes. Seems Canine Assistants had the same idea," says Jeanene Jewett.
Jewett's dog died two years ago, and the busy lifestyle of this senior accounting manager with Infor Consulting Services didn't seem conducive having to a full-time dog. "So, when I learned about CA, I thought it was a great way to get a volunteer experience similar to my interests."
Canine Assistants trains service and therapy dogs. Service dogs help people with physical disabilities. Therapy dogs help people with emotional challenges, like post-traumatic stress disorder. CA gives its dogs to individuals and institutions, including children's hospitals and nursing homes. This video shows Canine Assistants therapy dogs "employed" at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.
The dogs are raised and trained for a year and a half on a big farm near the Infor office in Alpharetta, Georgia, where Jewett works. Jewett is a certified volunteer, so she can take dogs off the farm.
"When I take a dog off the property, the goal is to familiarize the dog with different environments as well as reinforce certain behaviors. I'll take the dog with me when I do errands on the weekend, like grocery shopping, hardware stores, the mall, and even out to dinner."
"I usually request a dog once a week. The instructor will assign a dog to me based on where I plan to go. They'll match my agenda with a dog that needs that kind of practice," she says.
'It's a great feeling'
Typically, Jewett doesn't get the same dog twice in a row. But she does have a favorite.
"Something in Tippet's eyes seems to be different. He has a big heart, and it shows in his eyes. Tippet is still a puppy, so we are working on being gentle. These are big dogs; they need to learn their own strength and how to control it.
"It is a great feeling working with the dogs and getting to know them. They are as different as people are. Some will jump in your car quickly and easily, and others are a bit more shy. Some are afraid of the hair dryer; others are oblivious to the noise. Watching how hard they try to please us is just a great feeling."
It's a lot of work, too. "Before you can even take a dog off the property, you need to exercise them (to get their wiggles out), bathe and dry them. This usually takes an hour."
"Before I was certified, I would walk dogs on the CA property, which is a pretty big farm. They have cats, goats, and horses, too. One day, a dog and I were walking on a path, minding our own business, when a cat snuck up behind us and then bolted past. Of course, the dog sprang to chase it. I got the dog under control, and directed him away from the cat. But then the cat did it again-snuck up behind and zoomed past the dog. We moved on to another area of the farm but, to my surprise, the cat showed up there, too, and taunted the poor dog again. I think the cat wanted a good laugh."
The big discount store Costco is always a challenging place to bring a dog, Jewett says. "There is so much food on the floor from all the free samples being given out, you don't really notice until you have a dog with you. He/she can sniff a crumb before I can see it. We are supposed to keep the dogs focused on us while we take them through Costco and, obviously, not let them eat off the floor. It is more challenging for us volunteers since we need to be vigilant and keep the dogs' attention directed away from these 'free snacks.' "
More about Canine Assistants
Canine Assistants is a nonprofit organization that trains and provides service dogs free of charge to improve the lives of children and adults who have physical disabilities, seizure conditions, or other special needs. CA has about 120 dogs in training at any time. It is placing between 75 and 100 dogs annually, and has placed more than 1,500 since 1991, according to its website.
Each dog costs roughly $22,000 from birth to graduation. CA doesn't designate a dog at birth to be a service dog or therapy dog, Jewett says. As the dog matures and develops its personality, it becomes clear which work it is best suited for.
There are many volunteer opportunities at CA, Jewett says. "Volunteers can foster a dog instead of being a floater like I am. Being a foster is an 18-month commitment. You are assigned a dog from its birth, and you stay with this dog until it graduates and is given to a recipient. The dogs live at the farm, but fosters usually take the dogs home with them for a night or two a week. There are also volunteer opportunities to work in the nursery, caring for the new litters. And there's the reading program. Dogs are brought to schools, and the children read to the dogs. Seems some children are more relaxed reading to a dog than to an adult," she says.
Jewett has made her dog dream come true with Canine Assistants. And now several other Infor employees at the Alpharetta office have been inspired to consider participating in the next volunteer training.