Volunteers needed to train service dogs in Spokane: ‘It gives a person freedom they never had’

Five-month-old Jolene wore a Canine Companions vest to her class recently at Sandpoint. Labrador-golden retriever puppies have only a few attention lapses, as a beginner.

The puppy’s 1-year-old classmate, Finnegan, proved to be more confident. He has been doing weekly training as a future service dog since May. Finnegan keeps a constant eye on her handler, Lena Lund, who Canine Companions also refers to as a “puppy sitter.”

Since 1975, Canine Companions have provided more than 7,400 service dogs free of charge to children, adults and veterans with disabilities. The Inland Northwest chapter is looking to recruit more volunteers – especially in Spokane – as puppy breeders are willing to offer about 15 months of dog care and training. Volunteers agree to pay for dog food, supplies, and vet care for the duration of that stay.

Finnegan will likely return in August to the Canine Companions headquarters in Santa Rosa, California, for final training and a potential matchup with the disabled owner.

Lund, a Sandpoint resident, said he hoped it would be hard to let go, but it was for a good cause.

“Doing this is so rewarding, because these dogs are amazing – how they are raised and trained – they learn so quickly,” said Lund. “They were going to serve someone who needed a dog so I thought that would be great.”

Jolene’s temporary family includes mother Chika Orton, who said her eldest daughter had been asking for a puppy for a long time, but then they learned Canine Companions needed volunteers.

“We thought this was a good opportunity for him to learn how to own a pet, not just owning a pet, but all of the responsibilities,” said Orton, whose family learned through the nonprofit dog training program. “Then my daughter felt good afterwards because we helped someone when we gave the dog away.”

Lilly Mitsui, an Inland Northwest chapter leader who lives in Sagle, Idaho, has been raising six puppies for Canine Companions, and the next one is expected this week. Mitsui says he sees untapped potential for expanding the branch with Spokane members, and there’s a need — the city’s current army of volunteer volunteers is smaller than in neighboring North Idaho communities.

“Right now we are having a storm of puppies that have been born or will arrive in the next few months,” said Mitsui, who added that the nonprofit slowed down its operations during the pandemic but has continued its programs. The Inland Northwest chapter was formed in 2018 and includes East Washington, North Idaho, and western Montana.

Mitsui first became involved in 1995 in the Seattle area. Today, she and her husband keep in touch with the people now served by the dogs formerly in the couple’s care.

“We have family from San Francisco visiting us in June, and he has a dog that I take care of,” says Mitsui. “I think he had a stroke around the age of 30 and lost feeling on one side of his body. They have two children and they are coming to spend a week with us.”

Another dog he raised became a hearing dog and went to a woman in her 40s.

“When we met, he was crying. They are very grateful. It gives a person the freedom they never had,” said Mitsui.

He said the nonprofit has an award-winning breeding program for Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and Lab-Golden Crosses to become potential service dogs.

At Sandpoint in the school’s indoor gym, puppies follow commands to sit quietly next to a chair, go under objects and across different surfaces. They should sit without paying attention to the other dogs while their handlers greet each other.

“We work with more than 60 people with disabilities, including PTSD,” said Mitsui. “PTSD dogs are amazing. This is a rather new program. They are taught to interrupt nightmares, turn on lights, remove covers and lie down in front of the person to calm and wake them up.”

A Canine Companions puppy arrives to accompany a volunteer at 8 weeks of age. The puppy sitter’s job is to teach basic obedience skills, socialize the puppy, and offer love and support, adds Mitsui. He has a family that took on the project, as well as many people who have retired.

Canine Companions provides online training classes, in-depth training manuals and in-person classes. Further training could be held in Spokane, if enough families register, he said. Another chapter leader and trainer is Bonnie Wakefield, who lives in Spokane.

At about 16 to 17 months of age, the young dogs return to Santa Rosa for final training by professionals. If that goes well, the dogs are matched with new owners at the graduation ceremony, also when a volunteer breeder is invited to come and present the puppies to the new family.

Service dogs are trained to perform a limited set of practical tasks geared toward helping individuals with physical disabilities or veterans with PTSD.

Some of the tasks they are trained to perform include picking up and delivering dropped items, pulling to open doors or drawers, pulling laundry baskets or helping with socks or jackets, pushing with the nose to close drawers, opening doors with automatic push buttons, and turning on and off. turn off the lamp.

Service dogs that assist someone who is deaf or hard of hearing are trained to alert sound receivers.

Canine Companions has 54 chapters across the US and six regional training centers.

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