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If you happen to meet Taylor Mach, an assistant science professor at Concordia University, St. Paul, you will also likely meet Crush, a 21-month old yellow lab. Crush won’t pay you much mind, but for good reason. Crush, like Mach, has a specific job to do during the day.
Mach is a volunteer with Can Do Canines, an organization that provides assistance dogs to people with disabilities. The organization focuses on five different avenues of service dog training: autism, hearing-assist, mobility, seizure, and diabetes-specific training.
The organization has around 750 total volunteers who participate in puppy training and more. Mach and his wife have been volunteer trainers with the organization for several years now; Crush is the sixth service dog that they have trained.
“People would think that I have some sort of dog training, but in reality, I had never had a pet experience,” Mach admitted. “They teach you what to do when the dog is with you.”
The skills the puppies will need to polish through each type of training varies. All dogs receive mobility commands – things like pushing handicap buttons, walk buttons, and elevator buttons as well as the ability to tug items. They also learn how to pick up items with their mouths to place in their client’s hands. A diabetes service dog, however, would need to know the smell of low blood sugar on their client.
Overall training begins while they are still puppies. Wearing onesies helps prepare the pups for wearing a service vest. Socializing, handling, and a routine of position exercises follow so the future service dogs are comfortable and trusting of maneuvering that will be asked of them. Generally, puppy raising includes a volunteer getting a puppy from when it is six to eight weeks old until they are 18-24 months old.
Some puppies, including Crush, complete their early training in a prison setting. Inmates complete training duties until the puppies are eight weeks old. Following that, the pups acclimate to a more typical family setting for six weeks. Afterward, they return to train with inmates until they are around 12 months old. The ability to expose the puppy to a variety of settings leads to better training outcomes. Either way, the pup will get the one-on-one attention necessary to hone and develop their skills.
“They’re part of your family and part of your routine. He literally goes everywhere with me,” Mach explained. That includes coming to the office, teaching classes, and attending meetings at Concordia St. Paul where Crush has been welcomed. “Concordia’s support has been great, especially in the Science Department. Everybody is interested in the training and nobody has ever questioned the presence of the dogs in class or at campus events.”
In addition to attending school and class each day with Mach, the organization holds socialization sessions at public places like Target where the dogs are able to train and zero in on their ability to focus on the task at-hand while there is external stimuli around, including other dogs, competing for their attention.
“At first, the biggest challenge for me was to overcome being noticed with a dog and to not be super nervous in public. Now I smile and go for it because what else are you going to do?” Mach explained. “The most rewarding part of the training process is the achievement and knowing where they are going. Just knowing is enough.”
For those interested in training service dogs and would like to know how they can get involved, Mach recommends logging on to CanDoCanines.org and visiting the “volunteer” tab.