Monday, March 23, 2015

I #WalkforSSD to make a difference

Guest blog post by Nicole Slabonik. She and her mom are currently raising their fifth dog for Susquehanna Service Dogs.They're walking in the Highmark Walk for a Healthy Community to support SSD. Want to join them and #WalkforSSD? Sign up for the walk!

Hello everyone, I am Nicole Slabonik and I have been a puppy raiser for Susquehanna Service Dogs for about five years now. I started raising service dogs when I was 10, but a few months before that my mom and I did puppy sitting for raisers. 

SSD is one of the most amazing programs to be a part of. Many times you might hear some of us say we are a big family. Since my mom and I started in 2010, we have raised 5 dogs. We have had Discharged SSD Tanzanite, Discharged SSD Rizzo the Rat, SSD Nitrogen, Discharged SSD Drizzle, and currently we are raising SSD Elwood.

I usually get asked in public why I raise these dogs or how am I able to give a dog up after having them for about two years.  Since I’ve been with SSD for 5 years now, the questions are easier to answer. I raise service dogs because of the partners and the puppy raisers I get to meet along the way. Before my mom and I started raising service dogs for SSD, we helped out with team training. We were hesitant about becoming puppy raisers, but after we spent our time volunteering, there was no more hesitation about whether we wanted to become raisers. Being able to spend a week watching partners interact with their service dogs and work together was so amazing to experience. We were certain we could give these dogs up because we knew these service dogs would help someone in need.

On May 16, we’re going to participate in an event called the Highmark Walk for a Healthy Community to help support and raise money for SSD. My mom and I walk to help create a better life for the adults and children with disabilities. I also walk to help support my family members with disabilities like my cousin who has autism and is partially deaf in one ear, or my cousin who has Down syndrome, and also my grandmother who passed away with multiple sclerosis and made her way around in a wheelchair. SSD raises, trains, and places these service dogs to help children and adults who have physical disabilities, mental illness, autism, hearing loss, and we also help military veterans. Training one of these dogs takes about two years to fully train, and they are all trained specifically for their partners needs throughout advanced training. Some people never really realize this until they see a team in action, but these dogs are truly amazing and can completely change someone’s life in the blink of an eye.

Highmark Walk for a Healthy Community
Event Details

Saturday, May 16
On-site registration starts at 7:45 a.m.
5K Walk begins at 9 a.m.
One-Mile Fun Walk begins at 9:15 a.m.

Harrisburg Area Community College
1 HACC Drive
Harrisburg, PA 17110


Thursday, March 12, 2015

Why I #WalkforSSD in the Highmark Walk for a Healthy Community

Guest blog post by Stacy Tarkowski. Stacy and her family are puppy raisers, raising SSD Ellie. They’re walking in the Highmark Walk for a Healthy Community to support Susquehanna Service Dogs. Want to join them and #WalkforSSD, too? Sign up online to join the walk.

Though I was born and raised in Central PA, I've been out of the region for almost 20 years. Shortly after I returned home to PA, I was introduced to Susquehanna Service Dogs through a friend who'd gone to work with the organization. I've always been an avid animal lover and, in the background of my mind, I was aware of the existence of service animals but had never given much thought to them before learning about SSD.

The more I learned about this organization, the more I began to admire what it does. Susquehanna Service Dogs asks volunteers to raise their puppies and attend classes to train the pups, teaching them loose-leash walking, several basic cues and good house manners. At around 18 months old, the dogs leave their raisers during the week and attend advanced training where they work one-on- one with professional trainers to prepare for life as working dogs.  Once they're ready, the dogs are placed in many different environments:  providing confidence to a child with autism, supporting a soldier suffering from PTSD, or simply providing companionship to someone in need. The brilliance of these animals - combined with the dedication and support of the SSD community - make Susquehanna Service Dogs an amazing organization and one I am proud to volunteer for. 

My family started puppy sitting for SSD after we lost our beloved family dog to bone cancer. Through much pleading and convincing from my 17-year-old daughter, Emma, we recently decided to become puppy raisers. Emma is a high school senior, deciding whether to go to school for veterinary sciences and one day open her own clinic or going to school for animal psychology and working somewhere fun like SeaWorld, training their dolphins and whales. In either journey, volunteer opportunities like raising a service dog are great experiences for her - and for us!

Emma and I are raising SSD Ellie (with very much support from my husband and 14-year-old son), a female yellow lab born in December 2014. Ellie is full of energy and takes much of ours. But the energy she brings into our house is positive, happy energy and she has taught us so much as we work on teaching her to become a working dog. It's tough work, but it's rewarding work. I love seeing how excited Emma gets when SSD Ellie has mastered a cue! Few things I've done as a parent have provided as much of a lesson in responsibility and accountability as raising this puppy. I'm very grateful Emma convinced us to do it because it's deeply rewarding.

That's why I'm walking for Susquehanna Service Dogs in the upcoming Highmark Walk. I'm walking because my family believes in SSD and what they do for others. I'm walking because we're raising SSD Ellie and she's teaching us as much as we're teaching her. Now, if you'll excuse me, SSD Ellie and I still have to work on her loose-leash walking. The Highmark walk will be here soon!

Highmark Walk for a Healthy Community
Event Details

Saturday, May 16
On-site registration starts at 7:45 a.m.
5K Walk begins at 9 a.m.
One-Mile Fun Walk begins at 9:15 a.m.

Harrisburg Area Community College
1 HACC Drive
Harrisburg, PA 17110


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Eva’s First Litter Has Arrived!

Do you remember SSD Eva, the dog who joined Susquehanna Service Dogs from Guide Dogs Queensland in Australia? She just had her first litter of puppies! Meet the F Litter: Forte, Freya, Fitz, Frankie, and Finnick! These five puppies were born on Saturday, February 21, and they’re growing quickly.

You can watch them on the puppy cam.

The F puppies have a big future ahead of them. Eva and her puppies are part of the Assistance Dogs International’s North America Breeding Cooperative (ABC). ABC is a group of service dog organizations throughout North America that are dedicated to producing quality service dogs. The co-op helps strengthen the genetic lines of our service dogs so the dogs we raise and train are the ones who are best suited to service dog work.

Half of Eva’s puppies will be raised here at SSD and the others will go to other ABC members to start their service dog journey.

When Eva first joined us a little over a year ago, some of you donated $3,455 to support Eva and her future service dogs. Thank you to everyone who contributed!

Would you like to continue to support Forte, Freya, Fitz, Frankie, and Finnick as they grow into service dogs? You can make a donation online.

We’re looking forward to watching these five puppies grow into service dogs and change  lives! 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Fulfilling Their Destiny

Guest blog post by Carolann Shiley, puppy raiser and sitter

It was 8 years ago that my shy, quiet middle child of 14 years old asked me the ultimate question – can we raise a service dog? We hadn’t had a family pet in a few years and I wasn’t sure I was ready for another animal in our home. Feeling guilty about denying him something he truly felt passionate about, I reluctantly agreed to give it a shot. I knew nothing at all about Susquehanna Service Dogs (SSD) when I researched programs that would satisfy his interest. We reached out at the right time and barely a month later, SSD plopped a furry yellow puppy into our arms. We were instantly in love. Who wouldn’t be? With her adorable purple handkerchief around her neck, she looked exactly like the “No Fleas on Me” dog from the famous commercials.


I had no idea how much our life would change when SSD Juniper joined us that spring. I was clear with my son that this was not a ‘mom’ project and he would be expected to keep up his end of the agreement. He was responsible for helping with feeding, walking, training, and engaging in the life of the puppy. More importantly, I stressed to him that he would be responsible for answering questions about why we had a dog in tow when we were at stores, restaurants, etc. With a more reserved personality, I knew this would be a challenge for him and I was prepared to back him up in hard times. I couldn’t have predicted what would happen as we grew with our puppy.

One day, I found myself staring at my son in Walmart when he was approached by a woman who wanted to know more about why we had a puppy in the store. Proudly, he explained what we were doing and why we were doing it. There was no hesitation, no shortness of words, and no lack of passion for his service puppy. At that moment, I realized that just as we were hoping SSD Juniper would go on to do great things for someone else, she was already doing something great for my son. She was pulling him from his shell and turning him into a more outgoing, outspoken child.

Time passed, SSD Juniper grew up, and she continued to provide us with amazing experiences as we prepared for her to enter advanced training. Dropping her off at the kennel was bittersweet. We knew it was something we had been working toward but we also knew there would be emptiness in our home when we returned. The first week was grueling. We waited patiently to see her after her training session on Friday and we were super excited to pick her up. She was even MORE excited to see us.

It turned out that kennel life and service dog life wasn’t something that suited SSD Juniper and she was eventually discharged from the program. We quickly agreed to adopt her and continue to love her as our family pet. When asked if I would raise another puppy, I declined. I was concerned about how Juniper would react when a new puppy entered our home and essentially took over her spot as the dog that got to go places with us all the time. I did, however, agree to be a puppy sitter and a temporary puppy raiser if there was a need.

We saw many puppies come and go over the course of a couple years and each one touched our hearts in ways we will never forget. We had one who gently walked Juniper around the house while she was on her leash, sort of like he “owned” her. We had one who took great pride in uncovering my children bright and early each morning to get their day started; they were not so thrilled with the wake-up calls. We had one who came to us in need of a longer stay. She was such a happy puppy that she ended up with what we dubbed Happy Tail Syndrome. She split open the tip of her tail and it would never be the same again. Eventually, they had to amputate part of her tail to help her heal. To this day, we still joke that if the CSI team came in with Luminol and sprayed it around, they would think we had a murder in here when the blood traces from the many, many times her actively bleeding (and wagging ferociously) tail was spraying blood all over my walls! Still, we loved them all.

Then the time came. My children were growing up, I had been through a divorce, and I was ready to take on another full time puppy. Enter SSD Reykjavik. Yes, you read that right. Reykjavik, capital of Iceland. The litter’s theme was Country Capitals. I could have gotten Ottawa, London, Berlin, Kingston…but I got Reykjavik. Not only was it hard to say, it was hard to spell, too!

SSD Reykjavik brought new life to our family. He had puppy energy and a dangerous pouty face that made you instantly fall in love, no matter what kind of puppy trouble he was getting into. This time, I went through the program without formally including my son. It didn’t matter, though. By this time, we were in it as a family. Everyone contributed and we all took turns at training Reyky with hopes of preparing him for future service dog life. Reyky charmed everyone he came in contact with: my family, my coworkers, strangers on the street.

As we progressed with Reyky, we could tell he was something special. He oozed with snuggling affection that he wanted to give to whoever would take it. He would, undoubtedly, be a great companion for someone in need. After a brief period where SSD contemplated breeding Reyky, Advanced Training arrived. We were very excited for Reyky and confident he would do well. Unfortunately, he had an unexpected incident that made him ineligible to be placed with a partner. I was devastated. I couldn’t process what had happened to my perfect puppy. I was at a loss for words as I tried to explain to my family, friends,and coworkers what had happened to the wonderful dog they all knew and loved. With a discharged dog, comes a decision – adopt or not adopt. I couldn’t possibly let anyone else adopt Reyky but I also knew that meant no more SSD puppies for me. Three dogs in my small house would be impossible. I also had the same hesitation I felt with Juniper. What would Reyky think?

But then there’s Becky: lovable, sweet, funny, very convincing Becky. Immediately she asked if I would consider another puppy. My gut said no and I responded as such; then, I waivered. There was a puppy that needed me. SSD Luna was coming back from a litter with another program and wouldn’t have any littermates here. I agreed to take her when I returned from a road trip with my daughter. Before we left, we had Luna for an overnight stay. As with any puppy, there was instant love. It felt right. I knew I was doing the right thing.

SSD Luna

It’s been about 2 months since SSD Luna joined our family. I thought I had learned it all from previous puppies, but I’ve found that there is always something new to learn. This time, I am learning lessons from both her and my sweet, discharged Reyky. While Juniper has grown used to puppies coming and going, she isn’t very fond of them in their high energy, bite-bite-bite stages of play. She prefers that they mature into low key dogs who don’t invade her space. Reyky, on the other hand, immediately adopted Luna as his little sister. He put up with ears, lips, and a tail constantly having a puppy attached. He endured her never ending kisses. He shared his toys, his sleeping space, even his crate was sacrificed for the new puppy. He never floundered. He took it upon himself to make sure Luna had a playmate as well as a watchful eye on her when she needed it.

Reyky and SSD Luna

Everyone told me that discharged dogs aren’t failures, they are just meant to do something other than provide a service to a person in need. I now know exactly what that means. SSD Reykjavik was discharged into my family to provide the foundation for Miss SSD Luna. He is, without a doubt, the littermate she needed since her own littermates had a different path than she did. It warms my heart to see them snuggled together every chance they get. Luna feels the comfort and protection of Reyky and Reyky gets to provide the snuggling he enjoys so much. It’s a match that was made out of pure coincidence and great timing but, no doubt, as part of destiny, too!

Reyky and SSD Luna
Want to be a puppy raiser? Apply online!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Walk to Support Susquehanna Service Dogs

SSD Ellie is working hard on her loose leash walking. She’ll need it in just under three months when she walks in the Highmark Walk for a Healthy Community on May 16 at Harrisburg Area Community College.

Susquehanna Service Dogs is one of 46 organizations participating in the Highmark Walk. Last year, 178 people joined us for the walk and helped raise $22,994!

This year, our goal is $30,000. One hundred percent of the money raised will go directly to SSD because Highmark Blue Shield generously underwrites the cost of the walk. That means that every dollar you donate and raise will help train dogs like little Ellie to become working service dogs, like SSD Aussie, SSD Dingo, SSD Newman, and SSD Vicki who are learning to work with their new partners right now.

These service dogs are changing lives and you can help by joining the Highmark Walk.

As a thank you, we’re giving the first 100 people to sign up a coupon to Perkins, donated by Perkins Restaurant and Bakery.

How can you participate? 

We hope you’ll join Ellie and the rest of us for the Highmark Walk for a Healthy Community!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Why Raise an SSD Puppy?

“The best part about raising a dog with SSD is the moment they put that puppy in your arms for the first time,” says Meghan Miller. “It’s incredible to know this little pudge is going to do something amazing, even if you don’t know what it is.”

Meghan is one of our puppy raisers. She and her husband Kyle raised SSD London, who was just placed with his partner in October, and they are currently raising SSD Garnet and SSD Slider.

Garnet and London
Sharon Medford, another puppy raiser, received her first “little pudge” SSD Uncle Cameron just over nine months ago. “The best part about raising an SSD dog is watching them grow and learn, turning into an amazing dog that will change someone’s life,” she says.

We have 103 dogs being raised in our program right now, and we’re continuing to grow. That means that we’re going to need many more puppy raisers to train our puppies, love them, and give them the solid foundation of skills that they’ll need to be service dogs.

Our puppy raisers come from a variety of backgrounds. Some have years of experience with dogs, others have never really been around them. They live in houses, apartments, and row homes in the city, in the country, and in suburban neighborhoods. They’re single individuals and families, some with kids and some with all kinds of pets.

The reasons people choose to become puppy raisers are just as varied. Shanne Keeny is a veteran and has many friends who are veterans. “I was fortunate that I didn’t get sent to serve on foreign soil,” she says, “but many of my friends did, so veterans with PTSD are close to my heart. I wanted to raise a puppy that might help a veteran someday (but of course, I will be happy if a puppy I raise helps someone else, as well).”

Shanne raised Lagoon, who was discharged, and is currently raising SSD Grantville, who is in advanced training.

Kelly Slabonik wanted to do something together with her daughter so she could learn the joys of giving back. She says, “At first I didn’t think I could give up the dog, so I started as a sitter. And then a trip to a Team Training and meeting and becoming friends with individuals with service dogs made the hard part of giving the dog up seem not so hard.” Kelly and her daughter Nikki soon became puppy raisers. Together, they have raised Taz, Rizzo, and Drizzle, who were all discharged, and SSD Nitro, who will be going to Team Training with his new partner in February.

Drizzle (yellow) and Nitro

Lisa Slater is one of our newer puppy raisers. She and her husband are raising 10-week-old SSD Hotchee. They decided to become puppy raisers when they were thinking about getting another dog. “I wanted to do something more meaningful than just getting a puppy for my own selfish reasons. While rolling through Facebook, I stumbled upon SSD and began researching. After sharing with my husband, his response was ‘sounds like a great fit for us.’ I know every day with every interaction I have with this pup that we are creating a solid foundation for the dog that will provide a service to someone with needs much greater than my own.”

However, giving up a puppy who is ready to move on to the next part of their journey is hard. In fact, one of the most frequent things our puppy raisers hear from people is “I would never be able to give up the dog.”

Becky Lamb, our puppy raiser coordinator, understands what our puppy raisers go through when they raise and give up their puppy. She began raising SSD Scotia in September 2010 as the best way to learn her new job. Scotia went on to become one of our breeders (she was recently retired), and Becky welcomed SSD Bridge (now in advanced training) and now SSD Jade into her home.

Becky often says to our volunteers, “If you have children, you don’t raise them with the intent to have them live at home forever. You want the best for your kids. You want them to go out there and change the world! It’s the same for the dogs. I want them to go out there and change the world for someone.”

Giving up SSD London was one of the most difficult things Meghan ever did. “But seeing him work with his new partner was the most rewarding moment I think I will ever have,” she says. “You have to keep in mind that this dog was never yours, not truly. They are always meant for a much larger purpose. It’s by no means easy. But the first time I saw our dog with his partner, the first and only thought that came into my mind was ‘worth it.’”

Our next Team Training, where people receive their new service dog and learn to work together as a team, is coming up on February 2-18. If all continues to go as planned, five dogs will be placed with their new partners.

“Nitro, my Pony Boyo, is working toward a February Team Training,” says Kelly. “And I can’t wait to see him go off with his partner to do great things! When one journey ends, a whole new journey is right around the corner. I think the new journey also helps make the journey that’s ending a little easier to handle. Becky always likes to call and say ‘I have a puppy for you!’”

It’s true that when one dog is finishing his journey with his puppy raiser, there are several new puppies who are just beginning. Around that same time that five dogs will be entering Team Training in February, 15 nine-week-old puppies will be just starting their journeys to become service dogs.

Wouldn’t you like to take home your own pudgy, wrinkly-faced puppy and help shape him or her into an amazing service dog who will change someone’s life?

If you would like to raise a future service dog, apply online today or call us at 717-599-5920 to learn more!

Friday, January 9, 2015

Cold Weather Safety Tips for Dogs

The thermometer said 24 degrees this morning, but it felt like 7. Brrrrr! We don’t know about you, but we think SSD Breeze has the right idea. It’s time to curl up in a blanket next to the fire!

Our dogs are working dogs, though, and that means that they (and their handlers) will be spending some time outside when they go out in public. (And of course, all dogs naturally need to go outside a few times day.) Here are some tips so your dog stays safe this winter.

Wipe Your Dog’s Paws, Legs, and Stomach
When you come in from outside, it’s a good idea to wipe your dog’s paws, legs, and stomach to remove any salt or antifreeze that may have gotten on them. Both are poisonous to dogs. The chemicals in salt can also burn your dog’s paws or cause them to crack and bleed. You may want to avoid walking your dog through salt.

Keep Trips Outside Short for Puppies
Young puppies are more sensitive to the cold than older dogs. If you have a puppy, you may want to only take short trips outside.

Don’t Leave Your Dog Alone in the Car
If you can’t take your dog in with you, don’t put them in the car. Your vehicle can reach freezing temperatures very quickly. Even if all you’re going to do is run into the grocery store for a gallon of milk, you shouldn’t leave your dog alone in the car. You never know what’s going to happen once you’re inside the store. Any number of things could keep you inside longer than you expected.

Give Your Dog a Warm Place to Sleep
Just like SSD Breeze, give your dog a nice, warm place to sleep that’s away from drafts. Not all dogs like to be bundled up the way Breeze is, but most dogs like to have a warm, soft place to curl up.

Secure Your Dog’s Tags
Make sure your dog’s tags are secure. The snow can mask scents, and it’s very easy for dogs to lose their way and get lost.

Have Fun in the Snow
Just because it’s cold outside, though, doesn’t mean your dog can’t go outside and play! Our dogs love to romp around, catch snow balls, and bury their faces in the snow!

Do you have any other safety tips for cold weather? Leave them in the comments.