Downeast Dog News
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One Woman’s Dedication to Dogs & the People they Serve

By Susan Spisak | Jul 01, 2017
Pacer alerting Jessica

Marie Gagnon, owner of Wizard Service Dogs and Lazy L Kennel in Otisfield, has spent the last 30 years hanging out with dogs, and she’s loved every minute of it.

Being with dogs is her “day job.” She trains clients’ canines to become their service animals, offers individual dog classes and boarding at her kennel, and she’s an instructor in Novice, Open, and Utility at Telling Tails Training Center in Fryeburg. Marie also molds dogs that need professional guidance for A.C.T.S., the Assistance Canine Training Services non-profit. Regardless of the situation or dog, she’s flexible in her approach, but always utilizes positive reinforcement, repetition, and reward training.

Her foray into the “dog field” began after her graduation from Boston’s Tufts University with a self-described weird degree - she majored in Biology with a minor in Fine Arts. She was walking down a city street and came upon a pet shop with a “free dog” sign. She popped inside and left with that free 9-month-old Standard Poodle – his only issue was a hernia. She trained him, and the duo worked so well that Marie eventually showed him competitively.

“That was sort of it,” she said of her canine career roots.

Service Dog Training

Marie got into service dog training over a dozen years ago because she felt there was a need. She began with Mobility and Hearing Service Dogs and has branched out to include other types of service dogs, such as dogs that will help a client combat anxiety or for those dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, aka PTSD.

She explained that Hearing Service Dogs for the deaf or hard of hearing are one of the original types. They tend to be smaller breeds, making them portable, and they need to be active and self-motivated because they must be “on alert” at all times.

Thanks to ear implants, hearing aids and amplifiers, they aren’t in high demand anymore, but Marie has one hearing-impaired client who relies on her service dog, but in a “home helper” capacity. When she comes home from an outing or work and removes her hearing device, her dog can alert her to sounds like the doorbell or fire alarm.

Mobility Service Dogs, also referred to as Mobility Assistance Dogs, increase the independence of physically disabled individuals, including those in wheelchairs or with balance problems. These dogs were trained to open doors, but with the advent of automatic push button doors, they simply push the button for its person, also referred to as its handler. Marie can teach the dog to help its handler take off a shirt, move the laundry from washer or dryer, and pick up items, among other things.

For those individuals with balance problems, a fairly tall and stronger dog is necessary. Marie said the dog wears a harness with handle, so the person can grab hold of him for support.

Marie trains dogs for people with specific food allergies. “It’s like any other scent exercise,” Marie said when asked how she trains to detect for a food with serious allergic ramifications. She’s currently training a Goldendoodle named Pacer to detect for anchovies and subsequently alert his owner, a gal named Jessica, when he smells them. Pacer has successfully let Jessica know that a nearby pizza was taboo – it was topped with the salty fish.

She cautions that people shouldn’t buy or adopt a puppy with the hopes of training him as a service dog. “It doesn’t work often.” A 12- to 18-month-old dog is best because you’ll get a better read of how he is going to be when he’s grown up. She will train an individual’s companion animal, provided the dog has a suitable disposition and is the correct size for the service work need.

She added that the choosing a dog for service work can be a “crap shoot,” with roughly 50% not making the cut after training, so professional input is best. It takes a dog with a special temperament and personality to be effective, especially if the dog is going to accompany his handler to work, and be in the public eye for 7 to 8 hours a day.

“The biggest thing that washes most service dogs out [of a service dog training program] is the ability to be out in public safely…So some really nice dogs don’t make it. That’s just kind of the way it goes.”

A.C.T.S.

Dorothy Hyde-Williams founded the New Hampshire-based Nathaniel J. Williams Foundation, dba Assistance Canine Training Services (A.C.T.S.), as a tribute to her son, Nate, after he died in an accident. The Foundation’s mission is to train service dogs for people with physical disabilities and therapy dogs for professionals working with people who may benefit from animal assisted therapy.

The 501(c) (3) A.C.T.S was founded in 2007, and they placed their first dogs in 2009. Marie is very impressed with their program. “They are very dedicated and do a good job with their pups.”

They rely on volunteer puppy raisers to guide them from 8 weeks of age through about 2 years of age, depending on the dog. At that time, the dog meets its new handler and the duo completes a two week training session together.

Marie’s role with A.C.T.S. is that of a trainer and coach for a pup – usually a Lab or Golden - that needs extra guidance. The dog will leave the puppy raiser’s home and go to Marie’s for a month or two of in-depth training. Her goal is to get the dog through the program successfully and not “flunk out.”

If a dog is released from their program for one reason or another, such as being scared of noises or children, Marie said that some lucky person gets a well-trained pet. For info on adopting one of their “Fabulous Flunkouts” visit http://assistancecanine.org/flunk-outs.html.

 

Service Dog Etiquette

Service dogs are working. When you see a dog in public with his handler, please don’t stop and ask if you can pet him. Ignore the dog as it’s stressful for him – and it can distract him from his job – which is to be present and focused on his handler.

Marie chuckled, but was serious when she said, “The handler probably just wants to get milk and go home.” Try to remember that if everyone stopped to talk to the handler because of his dog, he would never get to his destination.

She did say if you want to talk to the person, great, but keep it short and sweet. Also, never ask the handler about his disability as that would be considered less than kind.

Marie said when she’s in public, either training an individual’s service dog or working with an A.C.T.S. dog, she appreciates it when a passerby acknowledges her with either a “hello” or a smile, ignores the dog, and moves on.

For dog training guidance from Marie through Wizard Service Dogs, contact her at wizardservicedogs@yahoo.com. Marie added that she’ll train just about any type of service dog with the exception of Autism Service Dogs, Seizure Alert Dogs, or Diabetic Alert Dogs.

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