Service dogs miss the world

April 29, 2020

Imagine being a puppy trying to learn all of the nuances of becoming a service dog going out in an environment that’s suddenly become very quiet.

Officials for Assistance Canine Training Services (A.C.T.S.) are doing all they can to raise and train the 15 puppies that are currently in the program preparing to be placed with people in need of assistance.

“It’s been very different, not just for us, but for the puppies, too,” said Robin Crocker, A.C.T.S.’ head administrator, told the Sun last Friday. “I think they’ll really notice the effect of this when we start to go back to a new normal and there are people everywhere.

“We plan on bringing the pups back slowly and will be having lots of training on the handling of this transition.”

Crocker said while most pets enjoy having family members around, working from home or doing remote learning, “our dogs are actually a little bored. They miss going out to classes, miss going for adventures and miss play dates with other puppies.”

A.C.T.S. was started in Center Tuftonboro in 2007 and moved to the Mount Washington Valley in 2014. Since then, the volunteer-run 501(c)(3) non-profit has graduated 30 teams.

Service dog training “hinges around public-access training, which prepares dogs for the many hours they will spend in places like stores, movie theaters, medical offices, and hospitals,” Crocker said.

Training teams now are asked to work with their dogs in public only when it is clear social distancing can be easily facilitated.

“A.C.T.S. normally provides weekly training classes and group field trips for puppy raisers,” Crocker said. “Until state social distancing guidelines are lifted and it is safe for the group to gather, these sessions in Fryeburg and Raymond in Maine; Center Tuftonboro; and Burlington, Vt., have been canceled.”

A.C.T.S. normally celebrates each year’s graduating teams with a ceremony in May. Three teams (involving a service dog, a facility dog and an explosive detection dog) were set to graduate next month but it has now been pushed to May 21. Meanwhile, the three dogs slated to graduate have gone to live with the people they were paired with and are thriving, according to Crocker.

However, “graduation is a very big event for A.C.T.S.,” said Nan Ippolito, graduation coordinator. “This is the event we use each year to celebrate our new teams and to allow our volunteers to experience first-hand the results of their hard work.”

While things have gone quiet, volunteer trainers have devised ways to maintain contact with puppy raisers.

Crocker said A.C.T.S. has a private Facebook group that is active and where puppy raisers and volunteers can exchange messages with administrators and trainers daily as well as with each other.

Crocker also said they are providing training videos and fun challenges on their volunteer Facebook page.

“The challenges come in a variety of formats so that everyone can participate,” she said. “If you are not feeling like teaching your dog a trick, then you can accept the challenge to provide a good treat recipe or comment on how a posted trick might have been taught.”

Most of the puppies in training are in Maine and New Hampshire, but two are in Vermont, and one is in California.

“Our three puppies that are further away are working with Shelby Packard (of Conway), who is currently coordinating our University of Vermont Puppy Raising Program,” said Crocker, noting that Packard is providing weekly training projects via Zoom.

Crocker recently held her own online Zoom meeting with trainers, an event where puppy raisers kept their dogs in a “down stay” next to them while participating.

“Of course we are looking forward to getting back to our normal training,” she said. “And it goes without saying that we all miss seeing each other and all the puppies. But we must be safe, so we will continue this way as long as it is necessary.”

A.C.T.S. is scheduled to have two puppies arrive to begin their 18-month journey to service work. One will arrive at the end of May and another at the end of June.

“We always need puppy people,” Crocker said, adding, “We do have two people for these dogs.”

While puppy raisers usually make 18-month commitments to care for the young dogs, Crocker said A.C.T.S. is adding six-month puppy raising opportunities.

“This is a difficult time for many non-profits,” said Kelley Brown, chair of A.C.T.S.’ board of directors.

“Everyone is facing challenges that they never could have imagined. Through the work A.C.T.S. did with their Assistance Dogs International accreditation, and because of the dedicated and professional team running the organization, we were as prepared as possible for this.

“We remain as healthy as an organization as we hope all our supporters are as individuals. And we so look forward to returning to a time and place when we can be out seeing everyone around town.”

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