Peters has been volunteering as a service dog trainer with Paws’itive Teams, a local nonprofit service and therapy dog center, for eight years. She has made the minimum two-year commitment to train dogs three separate times, and shows no signs of stopping.
“Working with dogs is a wonderful gift,” Peters said. “It has taught me a lot of patience and positive reinforcement in my everyday life.”
The commitment to volunteer as a service dog trainer is not one to be taken lightly. Trainers receive the puppies when they are about seven weeks old, and not until they are at least two years old do they get placed with a person with limited mobility. During those two years, the trainer goes everywhere with the dog. Peters, an athletic trainer at San Diego State University, has taken each of her trainees to work on a regular basis — where they easily make friends with the student athletes that come to her for physical therapy.
Peters attempts to show her dogs how to behave in any situation. She takes her dogs-in-training not only to the office and back, but pretty much everywhere she goes, especially places they might go with their future partner. She takes them to the movies, to dinner with friends, to places that offer plenty of distractions (Seaport Village, she said, is a personal favorite — she calls it “the mecca of distraction”).
“We try to acclimate the dog as best we can so the applicant can become more comfortable in those environments,” she said. “Because they’re not only dealing with a disability — they suddenly have this animal that depends on them for all their needs.”
Carol Davis, cofounder of Paws’itive Teams, started the organization as an alternative to big, nationwide training groups. When she and her partner conceived the idea for the organization, they decided they would work with a team of all-volunteer trainers, as opposed to paid trainers. They also decided that they would place the dogs only within San Diego County and that, unlike other groups that use the method of a “puppy trainer” (who works with the puppy for the first few months of its life), they would place a dog with a volunteer from the get-go, so the trainer could get to know the animal from its infancy.
“Our volunteers devote so much time, they want to start off right away and build a foundation with the puppy,” Davis said.
Once the puppy is placed with a trainer, they take on the responsibility for teaching the animal the necessary behavior for a life led largely in public. Though volunteers set out to train dogs to go into service for people with limited mobility, the dogs may have a different idea. Paws’itive Teams, which offers different opportunities for canines to make use of their skills, can usually find a place for dogs that display behaviors not ideal for service (such as a desire to run or chase small animals).
No two dogs Peters has trained have been alike — and all have gone on to serve in equally unique ways. Her first dog, Annie, was a golden doodle (a cross between a golden retriever and a standard poodle). Annie turned out to be the perfect candidate for becoming a facility dog, and she now works with at-risk teens at a high school. Her second dog, Sunny, a golden retriever, displayed signs of stress when doing difficult tasks, so she found her calling helping out a woman who works with disabled primary-age children. The woman, it turns out, also has a daughter who is autistic, so Sunny will play a dual role of facility dog for the disabled children and service dog for her boss’ daughter. She will help create space for the girl, something people with autism often need more of.
“We could tell Sunny was stressing when doing difficult tasks,” Peters said. “So, keeping her quality of life in mind, we didn’t want to force her to become something she wasn’t comfortable with.”
Davis said about 60 percent of dogs in training to become service animals actually get placed in that capacity. About 20 or 30 percent of them go on to become facility dogs, where their work is determined by the professional they get placed with. Only about 10 percent, Davis said, get released from the program to become house pets. Those dogs might display behaviors that will not be beneficial in a service capacity.
“In a way, it’s like choosing a spouse,” Davis said. “You have to match the skills and personality of the dog with the lifestyle and needs of the individual. Finding that right match that will maximize what the dog has to offer is very important.”
As for Peters, her third dog is taking a different route from her first two. Autumn, a golden retriever/black lab mix, will actually go on to be a service dog. She’ll be placed with Alesha Thomas, a student at UC San Diego who has cerebral palsy. An ideal situation, Peters said, since she’s already comfortable on college campuses due to Peters’ job at SDSU.
“That’s the nice thing about Paws’itive Teams,” Peters said. “They’re very active and selective in choosing placement.”
Davis confirmed that the organization takes great pains to make sure the partnership between human and service dog will be a successful one. Once an applicant expresses interest in a dog from her team, Davis puts them through several rounds of interviews to make sure the match is good. After a phone interview, every member of the household must visit Paws’itive Teams’ facilities for a face-to-face interview. Davis then conducts a home visit, where she can decide if the dog’s future environment will be sufficient. The organization is so selective, in fact, they only place about two dogs per year.
“One home we visited was too cluttered for a large dog. Another had a roommate that didn’t like dogs,” she said. “We rule people out at all different stages of the process.”
Once the dog finally finds its match, the trainer spends about five months working with both dog and person during what is called the “transition training.” Peters is currently in this phase of her training with Autumn, working with Thomas. Once that period is complete, the trainer hands over the leash. Their work, however, is not done.
What starts out as a minimum two-year commitment is actually a commitment for the life of the dog (and no trainer, it seems, would have it any differently). Peters is still active in the lives of her first two trainees, working with them and their current human partners to make sure they’re still comfortable with the work they perform. Annie, her first dog, has been diagnosed with bone cancer, and Peters and Davis have both been involved in decisions regarding her treatment and care. With Autumn, Peters suspects she’ll be active in helping Thomas — who is pre-med — equip Autumn with new skills to help her maneuver around labs and other places.
“The applicants are very reliant on us for support,” Peters said. “And we’re happy to do it, of course, because of the bond we develop with the dogs.”
That bond makes the successful placement of a dog with an applicant a somewhat bittersweet moment. Peters said watching the two develop a bond and grow to love each other still causes her to get “teary eyed.”
“There are many people who approach me and say they could never do this because they would get too attached to the dog,” she said. “We definitely bond with them — I mean, they’re this little soul we have with us for 24 hours a day for two or two-and-a-half years. You have to have the mindset of a foster parent. You know it’s not permanent.”
Paws’itive Teams trains dogs for service at three different levels: therapy, facility or service dogs. The biggest difference — between therapy and service dogs — is the legal right to have access to public places.
• Therapy dogs don’t have public access rights. They are usually personal pets whose owners wish to train to provide a service. They can provide comfort in hospices and hospitals, work in schools with children to help them develop confidence and social skills, or brighten the day of someone living in a nursing home. Paws’itive Teams offers a “Therapy Dog Prep School,” wherein owners and their dogs can learn about different ways they can be of service and will receive training skills to figure out where a particular dog — and its human — might make the best use of his or her skills. Davis said the prep school doesn’t provide any certification, since different places where therapy dogs are needed often have different standards and needs, and should be contacted directly for certification requirements.
• Facility dogs are placed with a professional and help facilitate that professional’s job. They may help calm children who have to testify in court, provide comfort and confidence to wounded soldiers and work with speech therapists and counsellors. Paws’itive Teams certifies dogs to be facility dogs, usually when it becomes clear the dog will not be comfortable as a service dog. Facility dogs have access to the professional settings in which they work.
• Service dogs meet the needs of people with disabilities. Paws’itive Team trains dogs only for people who have limited mobility, and the dogs can perform tasks such as retrieving items dropped out of reach, pulling a wheelchair, opening doors and cupboards, turning lights on and off and helping with balance. Service dogs have full access to all public places.