Anyone who has ever owned a dog knows that training one is hard work. Most of us are satisfied with the basics – but Tom and Julie Coleman, co-founders of Pawsitivity Service Dogs in St. Paul, have a taller order to fill.
Since 2012, they have dedicated themselves to rescuing and training service dogs for U.S. military veterans and children with a range of physical and psychiatric disabilities.
According to Tom, about one out of every 1,000 dogs is suitable for service dog training. He said, “The list of desirable personality traits is pretty long. We prefer low-energy dogs, for starters. Most service dogs tend to be Labrador retrievers or golden retrievers. They are bred to be duck-hunting dogs. Historically, their job has been to lie down quietly in the bottom of a boat and wait. They are people-focused, patient, and big enough not to get stepped on.”
Tom and Julie have graduated 27 service dog/handler teams since they formed their non-profit organization almost a decade ago. Service dogs are trained to improve the quality of life for people living with disabilities such as autism, blindness, epilepsy, PTSD or other psychiatric disorders.
Tom explained, “To be eligible to receive a service dog, a person has to have an ADA recognized disability (Americans with Disabilities Act.) The law specifies that each dog must be trained for a specific person and their disability. One of the things we specialize in is training dogs for people with multiple disabilities. This requires personalized training for the whole family.”
How can a service dog help?
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can affect veterans returning home from service, and is one of the disabilities a service dog can help with. PTSD can also affect people who have experienced trauma or violence unrelated to military service. Tom said, “PTSD often involves hyper-sensitivity to sound, and unexpected sounds can trigger a series of panic reactions. While more research needs to be done, service dog intervention is increasingly being recommended by clinicians for people with PTSD.
“A service dog can provide some of these benefits: reduced depression, reduced need for medication, improved sleep quality, reduced thoughts of suicide, reduced isolation, improved social skills, and improved ability to volunteer or work.”
A chance conversation led the Colemans down the path to becoming professional dog trainers. They trace the beginnings of their career change to a conversation with a friend whose son had autism. The little boy’s quality of life started to improve when his family got him a dog. The family had dreamed of a service dog trained to anticipate the unique needs of an autistic child, but there wasn’t one available.
Both Tom and Julie decided to pursue training at the national CATCH Dog Training Academy in positive reinforcement and force-free training methods. Their idea was to start a non-profit; they would rescue dogs and train them to be service dogs for children with autism. They quickly realized the need was broader than that.
An editor before she became a dog trainer, Julie does most of the hands-on stuff. Her personality is sometimes likened to a border collie because of her precise, organized work style. As executive director, Tom, who has a theater background, fundraises and works one-on-one with families receiving service dogs. Friends say he has the temperament of a golden retriever: people-focused and enthusiastic.
The Pawsitivity team trains 2-3 dogs each year. Tom said, “There are millions of people in the U.S. who qualify as having a disability. We might be the smallest training organization in the state of Minnesota. Can Do Canines is the largest, and they train maybe 10 times as many dogs each year. The need for trained service dogs is tremendous, but the supply is very limited.”
He continued, “We are not currently taking applications for service dogs. In fact, we have found that wait lists don’t work. When we have a dog ready to be placed in the community, we post that on our website and social media channels. Every time, we get a flood of applications. We use a 10-point list of questions to evaluate who is the best choice to receive a particular dog. Once the dog is placed with an individual or family, that’s when the person-specific training begins.”
Outreach to those underserved
Pawsitivity’s newest program funds a Black U.S. military veteran who trains service dogs for other Black U.S. military veterans. Tom said, “The service dog training community is not diverse at all. People of Color are very under-represented in both training and receiving service dogs. As far as I can tell, ours is the first service dog organization focused on increasing diversity. We are committed to helping train service dogs for Black U.S. military veterans.”
The power of community
According to Tom, “The key to our success has been leveraging the power of community. The Grand Avenue Veterinary Center has donated spaying and neutering services for years. We receive pro-bono legal consultation, and help with fundraising from organizations like the Minnesota Wild.
“People who have pets understand the value of those relationships – how having a pet can be life changing, even in the absence of a disability. Imagine what it would be like to be a child with autism. Having a service dog could open doors to making a friend and being a friend. If it’s true that it takes a village to raise a child, it can also be said that it takes a village to raise a service dog. And that service dog has the potential to change people’s lives for the better.”
Pawsitivity is a full member of Animal Assisted Intervention International (AAII), and is committed to positive reinforcement training methods.
To make a donation, go to www.pawsitivityservicedogs.com.