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Service Dogs for America trains dogs for veterans, others with PTSD

JUD -- It takes a special dog to meet the needs of the men and women who deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, according to Annie Strickland, administrator for Service Dogs for America.

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Vicki McMahon, trainer at Service Dogs for America, works with Missy. Missy is being trained to detect the odor of low blood sugar in the breath and could alert an individual during a diabetic incident. (John M. Steiner / Forum News Service)

JUD -- It takes a special dog to meet the needs of the men and women who deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, according to Annie Strickland, administrator for Service Dogs for America.

Service Dogs for America in Jud, N.D., is the only place in the state where dogs learn those skills, she said.

“Out of all our programs, it is the fastest growing and most in demand,” she said, referring to the PTSD support dogs. “We placed nine service dogs in 2015. Most of those were PTSD dogs and most were for veterans.”

Service Dogs for America reached a milestone in 2015 by placing its 250th dog with a person needing assistance. The organization started in 1989 as Great Plains Assistance Dogs and has operated in Jud for more than 25 years.

Dogs can help calm people in stressful situations, Strickland said. Some of the skills the dogs are taught include blocking -- when the dog physically prevents someone from getting too close to its partner -- to “watching their six” -- when the dog stands where it can watch behind the person so no one can surprise the person from behind.

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In extreme situations, the dog is trained to lead, or even drag, the person outside the area where the stress is occurring. The dogs will also show affection to their person, which can reduce the stress the person is feeling.

“It’s a large job and a lot of responsibility,” Strickland said, referring to the responsibilities the dog is charged with.

Additional responsibilities are added in some circumstances. Service Dogs for America is one of the few facilities that trains dogs for people with multiple needs. Along with providing the PTSD support, the dog might be trained to provide physical support for people with mobility issues or traumatic brain injury, detect and alert low blood sugar by smelling the person’s breath or alert the person to an impending seizure and aid the person during the seizure event.

The dogs

Service Dogs for America raises some puppies for its programs but also takes in rescue dogs that fit its criteria for size and temperament.

“Border collie and lab mixes are wonderful for PTSD dogs,” said Shelley Nannenga, development director for Service Dogs for America.

Size is a factor for some service dog skills. Larger dogs are necessary for people with traumatic brain injury or seizures who might use the dog for support to prevent falls. Dogs weighing 40 and 50 pounds are often used for the standard PTSD-support training.

Each dog is checked by a veterinarian twice a year and all dogs go through the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals certification process twice during the training process, at a cost of about $800 each time for X-rays and review, before the dogs are certified as a service dog.

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Service Dogs for America currently has about 50 dogs in various levels of training.

The trainers

Training occurs at the Jud facility as well as at the James River Correctional Center in Jamestown and the Missouri River Correctional Center in Bismarck.

Inmates work with puppies from Bismarck rescue groups at the Missouri River Correctional Center. After about 10 weeks, the dogs are tested for the “canine good citizen” certification. Those with the right temperament continue training for service dog skills. Other dogs are made available for adoption within the Bismarck community.

Inmates at the James River Correctional Center train dogs for more intermediate and advanced skills such as sitting and staying for longer periods and picking up objects on command. The dogs commonly finish training at Jud before being placed with a client.

Inmates receive certification when they complete their sentence that indicates they have skills as a dog trainer. Service Dogs for America has a staff of 11 people at Jud, including apprentice trainers.

“We’re one of the few facilities that pays people as they learn,” Nannenga said.

Training in Jud usually includes the specific skills the dog will need in working with its person once it is placed.

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Receiving a dog

Applying for a service dog has an in-depth application process. Initial application is made through the website at www.servicedogsforamerica.org . Applicants, who receive preliminary approval, fill out a 26-page form with more details.

Once a person receives final approval for a dog, he or she is required to come to Jud to get matched with the animal and receive training.

“We introduce the client to two to four dogs,” Strickland said. “We see which bonds. It saves time in the long run.”

Clients from outside North Dakota are required to spend three weeks in Jud working with their new dog. They live in cottages at the Service Dogs for America campus during this time.

Clients from within North Dakota are allowed to commute to Jud for portions of the training.

Service Dogs for America is in the process of implementing a “courthouse dog” program. These dogs would be specifically trained to comfort and calm people in traumatic situations in court. The program is still in the development phase, but Jen Brodkorb, executive director of Service Dogs for America, hopes the program will be operational and able to place its first dogs in 2016.

Brodkorb is also working on a change to North Dakota law to make it a crime to misrepresent an animal as a service animal.

“In most states, misrepresenting a dog as a service dog is a misdemeanor,” Brodkorb said. “In some states it’s a felony.”

North Dakota currently does not have a law concerning misrepresentation of a dog as a service dog.

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