Monday, January 6, 2020

It Started with One Puppy

Sharon Stalker and SSD Hamilton at ZooAmerica

Sharon Stalker and her husband Brian have been raising puppies for Susquehanna Service Dogs since 1994. We were founded in 1993, so they’ve been volunteers from almost the very beginning. Can you guess how many puppies they’ve raised?


Back in 1994, the Stalkers had recently lost their family dog after moving to Hershey, PA. One day, we were training puppies on campus at the Milton Hershey School. Another houseparent at the Milton Hershey School called to tell Sharon and Brian about us.

“I was going to go check it out,” said Sharon, “but Brian said that I would come home with a puppy. So he went. He attended one class and came home with a puppy!”

They’ve been raising puppies ever since. Currently, they’re raising SSD Hamilton.

How do they do it? People often tell us that they would love to raise a puppy but they’d never be able to give them up. It was really hard for the Stalkers to let go of the first dog they raised, SSD Lily. In fact, they had decided that they were going to wait before raising another.

Then the mother of SSD Lily’s partner called her and shared stories about the bond between Lily and her daughter. “Her mother told me that after going out somewhere with SSD Lily, her little girl said ‘People see me now,’” said Sharon. “That simple statement grabbed my heart and is what keeps me going. It’s why I’ve raised 19 SSD pups.

“It’s hard to let go," she said, "but once you meet their partner, it’s the best feeling in the world. You’ve been part of a priceless gift that will change their world. The pup has also changed your own life.”

We’re looking for more puppy raisers who want to make a difference and help dogs change people’s lives. Raisers welcome a 9-week-old puppy into their home and teach them good house manners and over 20 different cues. They also take the dogs out in public to learn how to work in all kinds of different environments. Learn more and apply on our website:

If you’re not ready to raise a puppy, you can still help our dogs with their training! Donate to help build a new training center where our dogs will learn skills like opening a door, picking things up, and alerting someone for help. Give now and make a difference:

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Service Dog Training: The Walk and Talk

SSD Lucky explores a new object
Guest post by Becky Dombrowsky, SSD Lucky’s puppy raiser

SSD Lucky has now finished the first part of his service dog training—Early Socialization Class (ESC). During ESC, he and other puppies his age met every week for eight weeks to learn the basics of being a future service dog. They practiced cues like “sit,” “down,” recalls, loose leash walking, and many more. These weekly classes help give puppy raisers a strong support system as the puppies grow and learn quickly.

At the end of those eight weeks, SSD schedules a one-on-one meeting with the training staff called a “Walk and Talk.” Other programs accredited by Assistance Dogs International (ADI) also use Walk and Talks to assess their puppies in training. By using the same assessment tool, SSD is able to collaborate with other ADI programs about puppies in training and breeding. SSD Lucky did his first one around four months old. He’ll do another one later in his training.

Walk and Talks take place in a neutral space, ideally somewhere the dog is not familiar with. Lucky had his at Keystone Human Services’ main office in Harrisburg, PA. When we arrived, Lucky demonstrated how to safely exit a vehicle and he was given a chance to potty before entering the building. Inside, we met Lauren Holtz, the Puppy Development Coordinator, and a volunteer who was filming the session.

Lucky walks across new surfaces 

Lauren guided us through the building, giving us instructions as we went. Lucky was given the chance to explore the new space without guidance from me, which gave Lauren the opportunity to see what choices he makes on his own. These choices can be different than the choices he would make when working with a person. There’s no correct choice.

We then demonstrated basic cues like “sit” and “down” on the verbal and hand cues separately.

We practiced walking up and down stairs. Lucky does better going down stairs in a controlled manner than he does going up, so we are continuing to practice going up. Lauren reviewed the video with me after the Walk and Talk and explained that Lucky might be pulled ahead of me on the way up because I’m clicking slightly later than I should be. I’m marking his position when he’s slightly in front of me instead of directly next to me. When he walking on a loose leash, I will work to correct his position next to me. It was great to be able to see this on video.

Another big part of service dog work is walking on different surfaces, body handling, and maneuvering in tight spaces. One place to practice is in a public restroom setting. Service dogs should enter the stall first, turn around, and then back up next to the toilet. This is also a great place to practice self-control so he doesn’t sneak a drink!

Lucky sits exactly where he's supposed to

What does Lucky need to continue to work on? Good loose leash walking and proper positioning on the stairs, especially when going up. He also had a hard time settling in a crate at the end of the session. While we practice good crate behavior in different rooms at my house and at work, we need to continue to practice in different locations. This is a little more challenging to do since it requires me to have a crate with me, but I plan to practice at other people’s houses where they have crates. I also have a travel crate.

Want to help Lucky with his training? Donate to build a new training center for Susquehanna Service Dogs! Give here:

Friday, December 20, 2019

Service Dog Makes the Impossible Possible

Jennifer Jones and SSD Cooper snowshoeing at Lyebrook Falls

The support of a service dog can make things that seem impossible, possible. Jennifer Jones shared how her service dog, SSD Cooper, has helped her reach goals she once thought were impossible:

“SSD Cooper and I snowshoed to the Sugar House from the base lodge. I was FINALLY able to be in the middle of the mountain and watch people ski! I’ve wanted to do this for years, but the only way to get there was to ski. Cooper has helped me do things that I never thought possible. What a blessing he is!”

Cooper hangs out with Jennifer at the Sugar House on Okemo Mountain after their snowshoe hike up the mountain
Cooper on the Lyebrook Trail
Cooper relaxing on Timber Ridge
Jennifer and Cooper cross country skiing
Cooper sitting in the gondola at Stowe when they rode to the top of the mountain

You can read more about Jennifer and Cooper in Vermont Sports, where they’re the second story. 

You can help create partnerships like the one between Jennifer and Cooper. Donate to build a new training center where dogs like Cooper can learn specific tasks to assist their future partners!

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

SSD Gannett Makes the Impossible Possible

My name is Kristin Livelsberger and my partner is SSD Gannett. We just completed Team Training in October 2019. It was an intensive three-week program where Gannett and I trained as a team along with 5 other teams. It was a valuable, inspiring, and mind-blowing experience! It was amazing to personally witness the positive impact each dog so quickly had on their partners in those first three weeks. Susquehanna Service Dogs often says that they change lives! It sounds dramatic and positive but yet doesn’t even scratch the surface of what a positive impact a service dog can make in someone's life. In truth, yes Susquehanna Service Dogs does change lives but in reality, as I witnessed, they save them!

Here’s my story:

The day I first met Gannett, she literally gave me a hug and stole my heart. I later found out we were matched. A month and a half later we were reunited at Team Training. Gannett saw me and got so happy that she gave me a hug. She remembered me! Gannett and I bonded quickly. We learned how to work together. I saw huge changes in the other teams during Team Training. However, it didn’t totally hit me how much the experience changed me until it was over. I think part of that was because, during Team Training, I was dealing with some health issues and I worried about whether or not I would get through and complete the training. The fact that I made it through without having a major health crisis or hospitalization is truly a testimony to the change that was starting to happen in my life. It is all because of SSD Gannett! 

SSD Gannett is 100% pure love, joy, positive energy, and motivation! She motivated me every day! She gave me hope and peace. She distracted me from my pain and with all the tasks she had learned to do, she made the impossible possible for me to do! As a result, my confidence grew! My limitations are no longer a barrier to being more independent. This is huge! To go from being told what is and isn’t possible for a tetraplegic to do, to being able to do things I was told I would never be able to do. During Team Training, Gannett and I were proving them wrong! It was hard to really process all of this at the time.

Since Team Training ended, SSD Gannett has accompanied me to multiple medical appointments.  Having Gannett with me kept my stress level down, which helped me stay focused and allowed me to communicate better. SSD Gannett also made it possible to go into the appointment by myself.  Being able to do things by myself is a huge step forward for me. The other major difference in having Gannett with me when I am out in public is that, for the first time in a decade since my spinal cord injury, I feel like I am no longer invisible. I feel like I’m a part of life again. This sounds strange but for a decade I have had doors literally slammed on me by people who swore they didn’t see me. I have had people talk to others around me and never acknowledge that I was there. This happened so often. This was a very harsh consequence for me, a super outgoing, fun-loving disabled person, to endure. This left me feeling very lonely and disconnected from the world. The only exception was the senior population and children. Now, when I go out, everyone sees me! People smile at me and make eye contact. Because of SSD Gannett, I exist again. People treat me like a valued member of the human race!

SSD Gannett has given me the gift of getting my life back and allowing me to be more independent with my care. As a result, this has given my family permission to live their lives as well. My daughters whom are both in college; have both said that they feel relief knowing that Gannett is with me and they feel less guilty about being away from home. My parents are going out more and not having to constantly be around to help me. This is very huge! My family has piece of mind with Gannett near me! She’s able to get help when necessary and fulfill many tasks that I no longer have to depend on others to do. SSD Gannett does so much for me and she loves helping and learning new things. She keeps adding tasks to her list of things she can do. There is so much possibility now that I have Gannett. She has learned to open doors for me but in so doing she’s opened the door to reclaiming my life and allowing my family to do the same.

SSD Gannett is an amazing dog and there was a lot of time and hours spent training Gannett and cultivating the motivation and talents that she possesses, making her the awesome incredibly helpful dog she is today. All the Susquehanna Service Dogs staff, trainers, puppy raisers, volunteers, and generous donors make all things possible for me and many others to live full, meaningful, and the most independent lives possible! Susquehanna Service Dogs is an incredible organization. They have been wonderful to work with, and all the care and dedication and commitment to change lives is proved by these remarkable dogs. Thank you for not only changing lives but saving mine!

Friday, October 11, 2019

Working 9-5

Guest post by Becky Dombrowsky, puppy raiser

What does a typical day look like for SSD Lucky? On most days, he comes to work with me.

Our mornings start at 7 am when my alarm goes off. He sleeps in a crate in my bed room right now because he’s still a young puppy. When he gets older, he’ll learn how to sleep in a dog bed at night. We head outside so he can “get busy,” and then he has breakfast. We play until we’re ready to leave for work.

Our commute is about 40 minutes. Lucky is now old enough to ride in the car without a crate. (When puppies are little, SSD has them ride in a crate in the car to help them settle in the car more easily and to keep them out of trouble. Lucky rides in my backseat or in the back of my SUV. He’s not quite big enough yet to jump in and out of the car on his own, since his bones and hips are still growing. Eventually, he’ll learn the cue to get in and out on his own.

When we arrive at the Capitol Building in Harrisburg, we park in the garage beneath the building, head for the nearest elevator, and find a place for Lucky to potty. Before entering any public space, Susquehanna Service Dogs requires that dogs be given a chance to take care of their business. Since I work in the city, Lucky’s options are limited, and he often has to use a small patch of grass near a busy road.

As we approach the Capitol, we have to walk past a giant fountain. Lucky loves to swim, so it’s tempting to investigate the splashing water. We enter then building and head to the mail room to pick up the day’s mail. The curved stairs on the way present a challenge for Lucky. There are only 10 steps, but because they’re curved rather than straight, they appear different to him. Lucky has a hard time walking in a slow, straight path and often turns himself around or just runs up them. I plan to continue trying to make this set up stairs a positive experience.

While I sort the mail, Lucky lies under the desk and ignores anyone who opens the door to the office. His focus remains on me as I load the electric mail opener that zips letter through a conveyor belt and slices them open.

The rest of Lucky’s day varies day by day. He spends a lot of time in my cubicle, either hanging out in his crate or under my desk. He has bones and toys he can chew on, but he spends a lot of time snoozing. When I need to run paperwork to offices throughout the Capitol, Lucky usually tags along, giving him a chance to go outside. He has gained all kinds of experiences. He’s walked by protesters and loud drums in the rotunda. He attends meetings and lies under the table, only interrupting with the occasional puppy dream whimper.

I am very thankful for the opportunity to take Lucky to the office. He is the second dog I’ve raised in this office, and it’s a great training opportunity for him.

It has also been a positive experience for my coworkers. When I first started bringing a dog to work with me, my neighboring coworker was afraid of dogs. Over time, she began asking to say hello to the dog, and a few months later, she welcomed under her desk.

A couple of my coworkers wanted to share their experiences:

“Having a service dog in training in our office has been a really unique and positive experience. I’ve never worked with service dogs in any capacity before, so this has been a great opportunity for me to learn about the process and see it in action. Lucky is the first service dog puppy we’ve had in the office and it has been fantastic to see his growth and progress every week. He brings so much joy to our work space, even when he’s having a rough day, and he can always make us laugh or provide a soft head to pet when our workday is particularly stressful. I’m very grateful to work with an SSD volunteer!”

“Having a service dog in training in your office is a cool experience because you’re indirectly helping the dog become a working dog that will one day help someone who really needs it. Plus, being in an environment that is constantly changing and sometimes stressful, a dog is helpful to ease the tension in the room. Since moving away from my dogs, I do not have that stress reliever to come home to, so it’s nice to have one at work with me. Who would not want a dog as a coworker?”

Help Susquehanna Service Dogs train more dogs like SSD Lucky to become life-changing service dogs! Donate to build a new training center, where SSD’s dogs in advanced training can learn specific tasks to support their future partners:

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Puppy Swap for Success

Different raiser, different house, different routine—it’s a puppy swap! SSD Lucky spent a week with puppy raisers Revenda and Brian Bierley to broaden his experiences. These puppy swaps are an important part of Lucky’s early socialization, helping him learn to work with other people and settle in to a new environment. After all, he’ll one day live at our kennel during the week while he’s in advanced training, and then he’ll ultimately go live with his new partner.

Revenda chronicled Lucky’s time with them:

“When he arrived, SSD Lucky was extremely excited to find SSD Russet, a 16-month-old golden retriever, waiting to show him the ropes. Their first introduction was typical: a lot of circling and sniffing. Lucky quickly became Russet’s sidekick and they enjoyed a lot of playtime. On occasion, Lucky’s energy surpassed Russet’s patience, and Russet took refuge in a quiet corner of the house.

Lucky’s first outing occurred the second day of his puppy swap when he visited the Carlisle Library. The library is a great place to take young service dogs in training because it offers a wide array of opportunities to practice newly learned cues along with new experiences.

Lucky practiced down-stays in the book aisles and went under chairs and tables. We also found some unique surfaces for him to stand on, practiced walking on stairs, and every worked on his elevator skills. Lucky will practice these behaviors in many different environments as he continues his journey to become a service dog.

He did such a lovely job practicing his newly learned cues at the library that we added a short walk around town. We kept the walk short, but it gave him the opportunity to experience the noise of traffic, crossing a crosswalk, and walking up cement steps.

On Friday, he went swimming with Russet. They enjoyed romping around the pool, chasing each other, and retrieving toys from the pool. Lucky quickly found his inner water dog and is well on his way to becoming an accomplished swimmer.

On the weekend, Lucky went on an outing with Russet. We took both dogs to Kohl’s, where Lucky (and Russet) practiced loose leash walking, down-stays, and “under.” This time, Lucky has the added distraction of working in close proximity to another service dog in training. This was a very successful outing, and Lucky was unfazed by Russet.

Toward the end of our time at Kohl’s, two small children asked to say hello to Lucky. He did a nice job keeping all four paws on the floor, even as his little tail was wagging a mile a minute.*

On Monday, Lucky went on one more outing with us before his scheduled return to his raiser. He was a rock star at T.J.Maxx. For a 3-month-old puppy, he showed off some impressive loose leash walking. I heard multiple people commenting on how well he was doing. We also took the opportunity to practice “under” and down-stays, as well.”

It sounds like Lucky gained some valuable experiences! He’ll continue to build skills like these over the next 15-18 months.

*Note: Even though the public is not supposed to pet service dogs, we train all of our dogs to be able to handle greetings. They’re trained to keep all four paws on the floor and stay focused on the person holding the leash. It’s all part of their training to ignore distractions.

Help build a new training center for our dogs in training! Donate here:  

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Service Dog Training at the Elizabethtown Fair

Guest post by Becky Dombrowsky, puppy raiser and volunteer

One of the reasons I love raising a puppy is it encourages me to go out and experience new things. Last year, Matt and I moved from Harrisburg to Elizabethtown, PA to be closer to his job. In that time, we have explored some of the restaurants in the area, but that is about it. I was excited to learn that Etown has its own fair!

Matt and I had planned to attend on Thursday night with Lucky, but the weather was supposed to get into the 90s. Friday’s forecast was much cooler, so that was the better choice.   

Not having been to the fair before, I wasn't sure what to expect. Assuming there would be all sorts of smells and foods, I knew I needed to make sure to bring along good power treats to keep Lucky's attention. We packed dog food as usual, but I also had some other dog treats plus small pieces of hot dog. I like using hot dogs because the juice gets onto the kibble and turns the kibble also a higher value treat. Last I grabbed a travel bowl and water, and off we went.

We decided to pay $5 to park closer to the fair. I was amazed by all the people, rides, food, games, music, animals and smells! Since we didn't know our way around, we headed into the fair and started exploring. Click-treat, click-treat, click-treat. And then it started: "Excuse me, can I pet your puppy?" 

At this point, I can choose to say yes or no, based on Lucky’s behavior. I picked yes, and asked them to pet him behind his harness when all four feet are on the ground. Lucky practices a lot of greetings when he’s in the office with me, so I was confident he could be successful with the greeting. It went well, we took two steps, and someone else asked to pet him. I realized I had started down a rabbit hole and we had just became the most exciting thing at the fair. We continued with a couple more greetings; it was nice for Lucky to practice greetings with younger children. Greeting with little kids can be tough for a puppy because the kids are so much closer to the puppy than an adult. We then made a quick exit and headed for the food.

While Matt ate the amazing fair foods, Lucky and I found a seat and listened to the music coming from the stage. We worked on "down" and hanging out as the sun set.

From there, we decided to head over to the animal section. The fair had many farm animals, which Lucky had never seen before. First up was the sheep. Lucky wasn't so sure about him, and we worked up to being a couple feet away. 

Lucky did get startled with the sheep baa-ed at him. I decided to make this less stressful on both animals and picked Lucky up as we walked through the rest of the animal area to also meet a cow, baby ducks, and a goat. 

It’s important to remember the animals at the fair had limited space to move away if they weren't comfortable, so I did my best to keep Lucky’s exposures short.

On the way out of the fair, there were far less people and it made walking by all the games and rides a lot easier. 

I think the night was a success. I look forward to getting to build Lucky's confidence with different animals as he grows. 

Help Susquehanna Service Dogs train more dogs like SSD Lucky! Donate to build a new training center: