MILTON, Ga.— Diplomas of a different kind were given out June 13, when Canine Assistants hosted its June 2013 graduation for 12 dogs and 13 recipients who spent two weeks training with one another.
Canine Assistants is a service dog school started in 1991 by Jennifer Arnold. The program places dogs with people who have either mobility difficulty or medical needs like epilepsy and diabetes.
“It’s very high pressure, and you can’t prepare people before they come to recipient camp for what it is going to be like,” Arnold said. “It’s a privilege to send them home with the dogs and to know they will always be a part of our family. We are going to miss them— people and dogs.”
All the dogs are retriever breeds raised on the Canine Assistants' Francis Road farm, and they have volunteers who help them learn to socialize and acclimate to a home environment before they are given to recipients.
The dogs are taught tasks like turning light switches on and off, opening and closing doors and how to respond during emergencies. Most of the dogs graduate in 16 to 18 months, Arnold said.
“We are emphatic to being kind to the dogs so our method of teaching is called choice teaching,” Arnold said. “There is no fear and no force. The dogs are encouraged to think things through, which is quite brilliant. It’s remarkable how fast the dogs can learn new behaviors.”
Emily Bounds graduated with her dog Espy after being on the waiting list for about six years. Her mother, Jeanie Bounds said the experience was wonderful because Canine Assistants is so loving and caring.
“The kids are so extraordinary,” Arnold said. “You just fall in love with them, and we keep up with them forever. This is not a sad place ever. It is so hopeful.”
Canine Assistants graduates about five to six groups every year.
Ericka Sutton and Paisley, graduates of May 2011, were at the ceremony to support Canine Assistants and all of the June graduates.
“It is a life changing experience. You gain more than a service dog,” Sutton said. “You gain a best friend. I call her someone even though she’s a pet, because she is someone to me. I am never alone. She is always with me. She’s my protector and I’m her protector just as much.”